Monday, October 04, 2004

Of the Republicans, By the Republicans, For the Republicans 

Today's article that Everyone Will Be Linking To Soon If For Some Reason They Haven't Already: When one party controls the White House and both houses of Congress, the first casualty is oversight; the second is accountability; the third is transparency. (And with his three best buddies out of commission, democracy could be next on the list.) From Susan Milligan of the Boston Globe:
Dismayed that the technology company Accenture had located its headquarters in Bermuda, thereby avoiding paying hundreds of millions of dollars in US taxes, the House Appropriations Committee voted 35-17 this summer to strip the firm of a $10 billion Homeland Security contract.

It was a rare moment of bipartisan agreement and an important victory for those who decry corporate tax loopholes. But it didn't last long. The Rules Committee, the all-powerful gatekeeper of the Republican leadership, prevented the measure from reaching the House floor. In a further show of its power to pick and choose what the full House can vote on, the Rules Committee allowed the House to vote on a ban on future Homeland Security contracts to overseas companies -- but let the $10 billion flow to Accenture, which spent $2 million last year lobbying the government.

The Accenture episode is emblematic of the way business is conducted in the 108th Congress, where a Republican leadership has sidelined legislation unwanted by the Bush administration, even when a majority of the House seemed ready to approve it, according to lawmakers, lobbyists, and an analysis of House activities. With one party controlling the White House and both chambers of Congress, and having little fear of retaliation by the opposing party, the House leadership is changing the way laws are made in America, favoring secrecy and speed over open debate and negotiation. Longstanding rules and practices are ignored. Committees more often meet in secret. Members are less able to make changes to legislation on the House floor. Bills come up for votes so quickly that elected officials frequently don't know what's in them. And there is less time to discuss proposed laws before they come up for a vote.

"There is no legislative process anymore," said Fred Wertheimer, the legendary open-government activist who has been monitoring Congress since 1963. "Bills are decided in advance of going to the floor" . . . .

Interviews with scores of lawmakers, lobbyists, and citizen activists reflect a growing frustration with what has become a closed shop in Washington. Among the Globe's findings:
  • The House Rules Committee, which is meant to tweak the language in bills that come out of committee, sometimes rewrites key passages of legislation approved by other committees, then forbids members from changing the bills on the floor. Only five times this year were House members allowed to amend policy bills on the floor, and only 15 percent of bills this year were open to amendment. For the entire 108th Congress, just 28 percent of total bills have been open to amendment -- barely more than half of what Democrats allowed in their last session in power in 1993-94. Further, the Rules Committee has blocked floor votes on legislation opposed by the Bush administration but supported by a majority of the House. For example, a bill to extend benefits to the long-term unemployed has been kept off the House floor despite what backers say is the support of a bipartisan majority.

  • The Rules Committee commonly holds sessions late at night or in the wee hours of the morning, earning the nickname "the Dracula Congress" by critical Democrats and keeping some lawmakers quite literally in the dark about the legislation put before them. On the Patient's Bill of Rights legislation in 2001, for example, the Rules Committee made a one-word change in the middle of the night that drastically limited the liability of HMOs that deny coverage to their patients. The measure was hustled through the House hours later, with few lawmakers aware of the change.

  • Congressional conference committees, charged with reconciling differences between House- and Senate-passed versions of the same legislation, have become dramatically more powerful in shaping bills. The panels, made up of a small group of lawmakers appointed by leaders in both parties, added a record 3,407 "pork barrel" projects to appropriations bills for this year's federal budget, items that were never debated or voted on beforehand by the House and Senate and whose congressional patrons are kept secret. This compares to just 47 projects added in conference committee in 1994, the last year of Democratic control . . . .
Lois Gibbs, who earned fame in the 1970s as the housewife-turned-activist who exposed the toxic contamination in Love Canal, N.Y., managed to speak directly with then-president Jimmy Carter about the environmental problems in her community. Now, the activist says, she can barely get in the door to speak to leaders of the GOP-controlled Congress or their staff members.

"Anybody who's an advocate for the environment or public health or on the other side of corporate interests is just immediately dismissed," said Gibbs. "It's just a whole sort of closed feeling you get that there is no discussion, no listening, no conversation."
UPDATE (10/5): In the comments below, our venerated colleague Michael Miller of Public Domain Progress recommends two excellent older articles: from the Washington Monthly, "Welcome to the Machine," by Nick Confessore; and, from The American Prospect, "America as a One-Party State," by Robert Kuttner.

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