Reform by Stand-Alone Legislation
The healthcare reform bill, officially titled The Affordable Care Act, was a stunning 2,000+ pages long. The stimulus bill – the American Reinvestment & Recovery Act – weighed in at 1,079 pages. And the American Clean Energy & Security Act, or cap and trade bill, passed the House at a length of approximately 1,500 pages. Omnibus bill this, comprehensive bill that…have you ever stopped to wonder why Congress produces such grotesquely long pieces of legislation? The answers are several and all disturbing but there is a way to reduce the length of legislation while assuring transparency and accountability in government: stand-alone legislation.
Forget for the moment the legalese required to enshrine a piece of legislation into law and pay no attention to the fact that Congress passed legislation mandating the use of “plain language” for the Executive Branch agencies, those status quo elements of Congress who produce behemoth pieces of legislation do so to hide things. Be they earmarks, pork, vote-for-mine-and-I’ll-vote-for-yours quid pro quo or votes that would see their constituencies preparing recall petitions, establishment members of Congress routinely attach bills and amendments to legislation that have nothing to do with the original bill and they do so to hide “politics as usual.”
A prime example of this bureaucratic chicanery was evidenced in the American Reinvestment & Recovery Act – the stimulus bill. A bill that was sold to the American people as being necessary to revitalize our economy while putting people back to work – and at a cost to taxpayers of a whopping $863 billion – saw funding allocated for the preservation of marsh lands outside of San Francisco (Nancy Pelosi’s home district), home to the salt marsh mouse. It also saw funding allocations for tunnels for turtles, green golf carts, digital television conversion, smoking cessation activities and even tax breaks for Hollywood movie producers to buy motion picture film, among a litany of other non-job producing initiatives. Each of these special interest spending initiatives was inserted by an elected member of Congress, the final version crafted behind closed doors.
Through it all, there was no transparency, no accountability. The process even afforded the most brazen of public trough feeder plausible deniability via the convenient use of the words “compromise” and “bi-partisan” when their constituents confronted them during subsequent town hall meetings. We even saw Michigan Congressman John Conyers say:
“I love these members, they get up and say, ‘Read the bill.’ What good is reading the bill if it’s a thousand pages and you don’t have two days and two lawyers to find out what it means after you read the bill?”
From White House economic adviser Austan Goolsbee, to senior advisor David Axelrod, from Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid and Dick Durbin to Joe Biden, Clair McCaskill and even President Obama himself, all trumpeted the urgency in passing the almost trillion dollar legislation and then all made excuses when the American public caught on that the entire package was nothing more than a payback to special interest groups for their voter turnout in 2008.
There is an easy fix – or as those elected to office like to say reform – to the legislative process so that pork is reduced, spending is managed, transparency is afforded and accountability is paramount: demanding that Congress enact rules in both houses that would mandate each legislative item be voted on separately; as stand-alone, singular pieces of legislation.
Starting from the bottom of that list with accountability, if each member of Congress has to go on record with their votes on each singular piece of legislation it removes the element of plausible deniability; it makes them bound to their vote on each individual issue.
For example, take the funding for the wetlands accommodating the San Francisco salt marsh mouse. If that were introduced as a stand-alone piece of legislation do you really think it would have passed by a 244 to 188 vote in the House? Would Illinois’ Dick Durbin have been able to defend a vote that allocated $30 million for the West Coast rodent as unemployment and crime skyrocketed in Chicago? Smart money says no. In fact, if this ridiculous piece of special interest legislation were to have been made to stand-alone for a vote it would be hard to imagine that it ever would have been brought to the floor for a vote.
This is a no-brainer. If elected officials are made to vote on each piece of legislation instead of attaching them to other bills, instead of creating omnibus and comprehensive packages of legislative items, it makes it easier to catalog an elected officials votes so that the constituencies can see how they voted. By making elected officials go on record for each legislative item the “lesser of two evils,” “go-along-to-get-along” and “vote-for-mine-and-I’ll-vote-for-yours quid pro quo” traditional voting scheme becomes indefensible.
Pork & Special Interest Spending
George Washington is quoted as saying, “Truth will ultimately prevail where there is pains to bring it to light.” Where shining the light on truth serves out country well, it can be successfully argued that shining a light on the actions of congressional funding might serve our country just as well.
Under rules that would create a stand-alone legislative process in Congress, those elected to office would be less inclined to take to the well of the floor to introduce a bill laden with pork barrel and/or special interest spending. Why? Because now that pork, that special interest spending would be permanently associated with that elected official and those brandings would become as subtle as the wearing of a “scarlet letter of malfeasance” for all to see, especially at election time.
There may be some who complain that by affecting congressional rules that mandate stand-alone legislation the process would be slowed to a crawl; the process of legislation would be slowed and perhaps some legislation wouldn’t even make it to the floor due to the time constraints placed on the process by the election calendar. To that I say “good” and “as it should be.”
The Founders and Framers never imagined a deliberative process that would find elected officials not reading legislation before they voted on it. They never fathomed a congressional legislative process where honest debate and thoughtful compromise were abandoned to expediency and the ideological whim of one political party’s majority – even if fleeting in nature – brought to bear through clandestine craftsmanship and secretive, one-sided deliberation. The Founders and Framers understood that for government to be held above politics a balance must be achieved. This balance, they understood, came from honest and thoughtful debate and compromise made in good faith and allegiance to We the People, not any one political party. Today the Founders and Framers weep for the bastardization of the once proud American legislative process.
Stand-alone legislation rules in Congress may not be the sole answer to rectifying the wrong that is political opportunism over good government, but it is a potent device that, when combined with other common sense initiatives, will ferret-out the self-serving political opportunists, the narcissistic professional politicians and the plain old inept and corrupt. Stand-alone legislation rules in Congress would demand honesty and accountability. It is a start down the road that will lead our country “back to good.”