Inside the Horror Show That Is Congress

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The House Rules Committee is perhaps the free world's outstanding bureaucratic abomination – a tiny, airless closet deep in the labyrinth of the Capitol where some of the very meanest people on earth spend their days cleaning democracy like a fish. The official function of the committee is to decide which bills and amendments will be voted on by Congress and also to schedule the parameters of debate. If Rules votes against your amendment, your amendment dies. If you control the Rules Committee, you control Congress.

The committee has nine majority members and four minority members. But in fact, only one of those thirteen people matters. Unlike on most committees, whose chairmen are usually chosen on the basis of seniority, the Rules chairman is the appointee of the Speaker of the House.

The current chairman, David Dreier, is a pencil-necked Christian Scientist from Southern California, with exquisite hygiene and a passion for brightly colored ties. While a dependable enough yes man to have remained Rules chairman for six years now, he is basically a human appendage, a prosthetic attachment on the person of the House majority leader, Tom DeLay. "David carries out the wishes of the Republican leadership right down the line," said former Texas Congressman Martin Frost, until last year the committee's ranking Democrat.

There is no proven method of influencing the Rules Committee. In fact, in taking on the committee, Democrats and Independents like Sanders normally have only one weapon at their disposal.

"Shame," says James McGovern, a Massachusetts Democrat and one of the minority members on the committee. "Once in a great while we can shame them into allowing a vote on something or other."

The Rules Committee meets in a squalid little space the size of a high school classroom, with poor lighting and nothing on the walls but lifeless landscapes and portraits of stern-looking congressmen of yore. The grim setting is an important part of the committee's character. In the vast, majestic complex that is the U.S. Capitol – an awesome structure where every chance turn leads to architectural wonderment – the room where perhaps the most crucial decisions of all are made is a dark, seldom-visited hole in the shadow of the press gallery.

The committee is the last stop on the legislative express, a kind of border outpost where bills are held up before they are allowed to pass into law. It meets sporadically, convening when a bill is ready to be sent to the floor for a vote.

Around 3 P.M., Sanders emerges from this hole into the hallway. For the last hour or so, he has been sitting with his hands folded on his lap in a corner of the cramped committee room, listening as a parade of witnesses and committee members babbled on in stream-of-consciousness fashion about the vagaries of the Patriot Act. He heard, for instance, Texas Republican Pete Sessions explain his "philosophy" of how to deal with terrorists, which includes, he said, "killing them or removing them from the country."

Tom cole of Oklahoma, another Republican committee member, breathlessly congratulated witnesses who had helped prepare the act. "This is a very important piece of legislation," he drawled. "Y'all have done a really good job."

Nodding bashfully in agreement with Cole's words was Wisconsin Republican James Sensenbrenner Jr. As chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Sensenbrenner is the majority lawmaker in whose scaly womb the Patriot Act gestated until its recent delivery to Rules. Though he was here as a witness, his obvious purpose was to bare his fangs in the direction of anyone or anything who would threaten his offspring.

Sensenbrenner is your basic Fat Evil Prick, perfectly cast as a dictatorial committee chairman: He has the requisite moistwith-sweat pink neck, the dour expression, the penchant for pointless bile and vengefulness. Only a month before, on June 10th, Sensenbrenner suddenly decided he'd heard enough during a Judiciary Committee hearing on the Patriot Act and went completely Tasmanian devil on a group of Democratic withnesses who had come to share stories of abuses at places like Guanténamo Bay. Apparently not wanting to hear any of that stuff, Sensenbrenner got up midmeeting and killed the lights, turned off the microphones and shut down the C-Span feed, before marching his fellow Republicans out of the room – leaving the Democrats and their witnesses in the dark.

This lights-out technique was actually pioneered by another Republican, former Commerce Committee chairman Thomas Bliley, who in 1995 hit the lights on a roomful of senior citizens who had come to protest Newt Gingrich's Medicare plan. Bliley, however, went one step further than Sensenbrenner, ordering Capitol police to arrest the old folks when they refused to move. Sensenbrenner might have tried the same thing in his outburst, except that his party had just voted to underfund the Capitol police.

Thus it is strange now, in the Rules Committee hearing, to see the legendarily impatient Sensebrenner lounging happily in his witness chair like a giant toad sunning on nature's perfect rock. He speaks at length about the efficacy of the Patriot Act in combating the certain evils of the free-library system ("I don't think we want to turn libraries into sancturies") and responds to questions about the removal of an expiration date on the new bill ("We don't have sunsets on Amtrak or social Security, either").

Such pronouncements provoke strident responses from the four Democratic members of the committee – Doris Matsui of California, Alcee Hastings of Florida, Louise Slaughter of upstate New York and McGovern of Massachusetts – who until now have scarcely stirred throughout the hearing. The Democrats generally occupy a four-seat row on the far left end of the panel table, and during hearings they tend to sit there in mute, impotent rage, looking like the unhappiest four heads of lettuce to ever come out of the ground. The one thing they are allowed to do is argue. Sensenbrenner gives them just such an opportunity, and soon he and McGovern fall into a row about gag orders.

In the middle of the exchange, Sanders gets up and, looking like a film lover leaving in the middle of a bad movie, motions for me to join him in the hallway.

He gestures at the committee room. "It's cramped, it's uncomfortable, there isn't enough room for the public or press," he says. "That's intentional. If they wanted people to see this, they'd pick a better hall."

Sanders then asks me if I noticed anything unusual about the squabbling between Sensenbrenner and McGovern. "Think about it," he says, checking his watch. "How hard is it to say, 'Mr. Sanders, be here at 4:30 P.M.'? Answer: not hard at all. You see, a lot of the things we do around here are structured. On the floor, in other committees, it's like that. But in the Rules Committee, they just go on forever, You see what I'm getting at?"

I shrug.

"It has the effect of discouraging people from offering amendments," he says. "Members know that they're going to have to sit for a long time. Eventually they have to choose between coming here and conducting other business. And a lot of them choose other business.... That's what that show in there was about."

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