April 9, 2009

Solving Congress

Remember the days when our elected representatives to Congress would attempt to accomplish something by actually introducing a bill, debating it, and voting on it?

By Bill Schneider
New West

I confess to having an old-fashioned view of how our senators and representatives should serve us. It goes something like this: They listen to the concerns of their constituents, decide to introduce a bill to address those concerns, have hearings and debate the issue in a fair and open forum, and then vote on it.

Think now. When is the last time you’ve seen Congress do that? You probably can’t remember any such success in recent history because, well, they don’t do that any more.

Nowadays, all Congress does earmarks and riders that often end in massive compilations like the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009 and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, both a hundred or more bills that should’ve been introduced, debated, and voted on individually in the light of day, all piled up as a thousand or more pages of head-scratching legalese that no member of Congress even reads before voting on it.

Is this the only way we can get anything done?

A lobbyist friend compared our current system to sausage making, but I’d almost rather let my grandkids watch sausages being made let their civics teachers tell them the bald truth about how laws are made.

If a senator or representative agrees with constituents that we need a new project or program, does he or she introduce a bill get it done? Hardly. Instead, our elected representatives instinctively and immediately start thinking earmark and how they can work the power structure of Congress to get their earmark tacked onto must-pass legislation.

Once passed, politicos rush to the media to brag about it, but they don’t boast about how they did it.

Instead, they say, “the omnibus bill contained funding for the museum or airport or water treatment plant.” We used to call that “bringing home the pork.” Now, we call it “earmarking,” which has insidiously become an incurable addiction.

President Obama promised repeatedly during his campaign to put an end to making law with earmarks and riders, but he praised and signed the public lands and stimulus bills, which were little more than colossal collections of riders and earmarks.

Most maddening, perhaps, is Congress tacking major legislation impacting millions of people onto must-pass bills as a rider and sneaking it into the law books with no debate or daylight, let alone a recordable vote. I’ve written extensively about my least favorite rider of them all, the Federal Lands Recreational Enhancement Act of 2004. Thanks to the Bush administration’s engrained goal of commercializing and privatizing public lands, Congress secretly gave us a runaway escalation of recreational fees to access and use the land we own.

Another excellent recent example is the so-called “wolf kill bill.” Both its sponsors, Senators John Barrasso (R-WY) and Jon Tester (D-MT), are out there beating their chests about getting it “passed,” but no talk of how it magically appeared in the public lands omnibus bill--no fanfare, no local hearings, no press releases about what our senators were doing, no chance for constituents to support or oppose it. Yet, suddenly, it’s the law of the land.

The wolf bill is probably a good idea that enjoys support from both sides of the issue. In addition to providing more reliable compensation for losses livestock producers suffer from wolf depredation, it encourages ranchers to take preventive actions to reduce future losses, both livestock and wolves. And the cost is barely enough to light five cigars back in the Beltway--a mere million bucks per year for five years.

Even with such a bill, one with strong support, we can’t do it right? I talked to one lobbyist who spent years working on the public lands legislation, and he didn’t even know the wolf compensation rider was in the bill. Ditto, I suspect, for many members of Congress who voted for it.

Riders aren’t insignificant add-ons; they’re real laws that affect a lot of people and require proper procedure and visibility. Earmarks should be part of the budget process or introduced as spending bills and given fair hearings, debates and votes.

I’ve heard the counterargument. There’s so much for Congress to do and it takes so long to do it that we need the earmarks and riders to accomplish anything, but I don’t buy it. Instead, it seems politicians prefer the new way because it helps keep all but political insiders in the dark.

Clearly, Congress loves earmarks and riders, and it’s easy to see why.

  • Earmarks help incumbents get re-elected by pumping pork into their states and districts.

  • Packing hundreds of earmarks and riders from many congressional districts into one omnibus bill gives more senators and reps something for their constituents. As the omnibus grows, the “yea” vote count grows. Otherwise a senator in Oregon has little incentive to vote for a wilderness in Virginia or vice versa. The omnibus approach locks up both votes by designating a new wilderness in both states. Consequently, the process greases the skids to the White House.

  • Our elected officials and lobbyists can partake in the earmark/rider process in the twilight without hearings, unhappy constituents, and pesky reporters asking questions and writing their own articles instead of using releases from congressional press offices. (Just in case you haven’t noticed, politicians expertly orchestrate news on their activities.)
But at least it’s our best example of bipartisanship. Both parties are equally guilty and addicted, and both on the hook for the skyrocketing deficits they’re unloading on our children and grandchildren.

But alas, there has been progress. For decades, the whole earmarking process was nearly invisible, but no more. People are noticing. It’s a common campaign issue. Congress has even approved new policy that requires senators and representatives to publicly declare earmarks they request. For decades, they didn’t even make this information public!

Dennis Rehberg (R-MT) just did this, in fact, announcing a list of 335 requested earmarks with a price tag of more than $1 billion, down from $1.5 billion he wanted last year when he didn’t have to make it public. Will this public spotlight lesson our zeal for earmarks? Perhaps. More and more politicians now condemn earmarks as the cause of wasteful spending. Witness Walt Minnick’s (D-ID) recent declaration that he wouldn’t request any earmarks, even for pet Idaho projects.

(Guess this proves earmarking is not a partisan issue. Our local “conservative” Republican wants all this pork and “liberal spending” and our local Democrat comes out against all earmarks.)

Politicos could push back and say it’s a cop-out for writers to criticize them. After all, they automatically and voluntarily become targets, deserved or not, the minute they announce their candidacy. And they might have a point. Are we the real culprits? We love our pork, don’t we? We don’t care if it’s an earmark as long as we get our new road, bridge, building, right?

So, will it ever change? I hope so. But realistically, I suppose the mess we’ve created is so huge and entrenched and popular with the power-hungry people we elect that it has become too big of a problem to solve.