Four Amendments and a Funeral

A month inside the house of horrors that is Congress

President George W. Bush makes remarks during a news conference in the White House briefing room March 16th, 2005 in Washington, DC. Credit: Mark Wilson/Getty

It was a Fairy-Tale Political Season for George W. Bush, and it seemed like no one in the world noticed. Amid bombs in London, bloodshed in Iraq, a missing blonde in Aruba and a scandal curling up on the doorstep of Karl Rove, Bush's Republican Party quietly celebrated a massacre on Capitol Hill. Two of the most long-awaited legislative wet dreams of the Washington Insiders Club — an energy bill and a much-delayed highway bill — breezed into law. One mildly nervous evening was all it took to pass through the House the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), for years now a primary strategic focus of the battle-in-Seattle activist scene. And accompanied by scarcely a whimper from the Democratic opposition, a second version of the notorious USA Patriot Act passed triumphantly through both houses of Congress, with most of the law being made permanent this time.

Bush's summer bills were extraordinary pieces of legislation, broad in scope, transparently brazen and audaciously indulgent. They gave an energy industry drowning in the most obscene profits in its history billions of dollars in subsidies and tax breaks, including $2.9 billion for the coal industry. The highway bill set new standards for monstrous and indefensibly wasteful spending, with Congress allocating $100,000 for a single traffic light in Canoga Park, California, and $223 million for the construction of a bridge linking the mainland an Alaskan island with a population of just fifty.

It was a veritable bonfire of public money, and it raged with all the brilliance of an Alabama book-burning. And what fueled it all were the little details you never heard about. The energy bill alone was 1,724 pages long. By the time the newspapers reduced this Tolstoyan monster to the size of a single headline announcing its passage, only a very few Americans understood that it was an ambitious giveaway to energy interests. But the drama of the legislative process is never in the broad strokes but in the bloody skirmishes and power plays that happen behind the scenes.

To understand the breadth of Bush's summer sweep, you had to watch the hand-fighting at close range. You had to watch opposition gambits die slow deaths in afternoon committee hearings, listen as members fell on their swords in exchange for favors and be there to see hordes of lobbyists rush in to reverse key votes at the last minute. All of these things I did — with the help of a tour guide.

Nobody knows how this place is run," says Rep. Bernie Sanders. "If they did, they'd go nuts."

Sanders is a tall, angular man with a messy head of gull-white hair and a circa-1977 set of big-framed eyeglasses. Minus the austere congressional office, you might mistake him for a physics professor or a journalist of the Jimmy Breslin school. Vermont's sole representative in the House, Sanders is expected to become the first Independent ever elected to the U. S. Senate next year. He is something of a cause célèbre on both the left and right these days, with each side overreacting to varying degrees to the idea of a self-described "democratic socialist" coming so near to a seat in the upper house.

Some months before, a Sanders aide had tried to sell me on a story about his boss, but over lunch we ended up talking about Congress itself. Like a lot of people who have worked on the Hill a little too long, the aide had a strange look in his eyes — the desperate look of a man who's been marooned on a remote island, subsisting on bugs and abalone for years on end. You worry that he might grab your lapel in frustatration at any moment. "It's unbelievable," he said. "Worse than you can possibly imagine. The things that go on..."

Some time later I came back to the aide and told him that a standard campaign-season political profile was something I probably couldn't do, but if Sanders would be willing to give me an insider's guided tour of the horrors of Congress, I'd be interested.

"Like an evil, adult version of Schoolhouse Rock," I said.

The aide laughed and explained that the best time for me to go would be just before the summer recess, a period when Congress rushes to pass a number of appropriations bills. "It's like orgy season," he said. "You won't want to miss that."

I thought Sanders would be an ideal subject for a variety of reasons, but mainly for his Independent status. For all the fuss over his "socialist" tag, Sanders is really a classic populist outsider. The mere fact that Sanders signed off on the idea of serving as my guide says a lot about his attitude toward government in general: He wants people to see exactly what he's up against.

I had no way of knowing that Sanders would be a perfect subject for another, more compelling reason. In the first few weeks of my stay in Washington, Sanders introduced and passed, against very long odds, three important amendments. A fourth very nearly made it and would have passed had it gone to a vote. During this time, Sanders took on powerful adversaries, including Lockheed Martin, Westinghouse, the Export-Import Bank and the Bush administration. And by using the basic tools of democracy — floor votes on clearly posed questions, with the aid of painstakingly built coalitions of allies from both sides of the aisle — he, a lone Independent, beat them all.

It was an impressive run, with some in his office calling it the best winning streak of his career. Except for one thing. By my last week in Washington, all of his victories had been rolled back, each carefully nurtured amendment perishing in the grossly corrupt and absurd vortex of political dysfunction that is today's U. S. Congress. What began as a tale of political valor ended as a grotesque object lesson in the ugly realities of American politics — the pitfalls of digging for hope in a shit mountain.

Sanders, to his credit, was still glad that I had come. "It's good that you saw this," he said. "People need to know."