Inside the Horror Show That Is Congress

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The bill went to the floor a few hours later, where it passed into law. The Rules Committee is supposed to wait out a three-day period before sending the bill to the House, ostensibly in order to give the members a chance to read the bill. The three-day period is only supposed to be waived in case of emergency. However, the Rules Committee of DeLay and Dreier waives the three-day period as a matter of routine. This forces members of Congress to essentially cast blind yes-or-no votes to bills whose contents are likely to be an absolute mystery to them.

There is therefore an element of Christmas morning in each decision of the committee. On the day of a floor vote, you look under the tree (i.e., the Rules Committee Web site) and check to see if your amendment survived. And so, on the morning of July 21st, Sanders' staff goes online and clicks on a link marked H.R. 3199 – USA Patriot and Terrorism Prevention Reauthorization ACT of 2005.

Twenty of sixty-three amendments have survived, most of them inconsequential. The Sanders amendment isn't one of them.

On a sweltering Tuesday morning in the Rayburn Building, a bookend location in the multi-building home of the House of Representatives, a very long line has formed in the first-floor corridor, outside the Financial Services Committee.

In the ongoing orgy of greed that is the U.S. Congress, the Financial Services Committee is the hottest spot. Joel Barkin, a former press aide to Sanders, calls Financial Services the "job committee," because staffers who work for members on that committee move into high-paying jobs on Wall Street or in the credit-card industry with ridiculous ease.

"It seems like once a week, I'd get an e-mail from some staffer involved with that committee," he says, shaking his head. "They'd be announcing their new jobs with MBNA or MasterCard or whatever. I mean, to send that over an e-mail all over Congress – at least try to hide it, you know?"

On this particular morning, about half of the people in the line to get into the committee appear to be congressional staffers, mostly young men in ties and dress shirts. The rest are disheveled, beaten-down-looking men, most of them black, leaning against the walls.

These conspicuous characters are called "line-standers." A lot of them are homeless. This is their job: They wait in line all morning so some lobbyist for Akin, Gump or any one of a thousand other firms doesn't have to. "Three days a week," says William McCall (who has a home), holding up three fingers. "Come in Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Get between twelve and forty dollars."

When a photographer approaches to take a picture of the line, all the line-standers but McCall refuse to be photographed and cover their faces with newspapers. I smile at this: Only the homeless have enough sense to be ashamed of being seen in Congress.

In reality, everybody in Congress is a stand-in for some kind of lobbyist. In many cases it's difficult to tell whether it's the companies that are lobbying the legislators or whether it's the other way around.

Amendment 3

Across the Rayburn Building on the second floor, a two-page memo rolls over the fax machine in Sanders' office. Warren Gunnels, the congressman's legislative director, has been working the phones all day long, monitoring the Capitol Hill gossip around a vote that is to take place in the Senate later that afternoon. Now a contact of his has sent him a fax copy of an item making its way around the senatorial offices that day. Gunnels looks at the paper and laughs.

The memo appears to be printed on the official stationery of the Export-Import Bank, a federally subsidized institution whose official purpose is to lend money to overseas business ventures as a means of creating a market for U.S. exports. That's the official mission. A less full-of-shit description of Ex-Im might describe it as a federal slush fund that gives away massive low-interst loans to companies that a) don't need the money and b) have recently made gigantic contributions to the right people.

The afternoon Senate vote is the next act in a genuinely thrilling drama that Sanders himself started in the House a few weeks before. On June 28th, Sanders scored a stunning victory when the House voted 313--114 to approve his amendment to block a $5 billion loan by the Ex-Im Bank to Westinghouse to build four nuclear power plants in China.

The Ex-Im loan was a policy so dumb and violently opposed to American interests that lawmakers who voted for it had serious trouble coming up with a plausible excuse for approving it. In essence, the U.S. was giving $5 billion to a state-subsidized British utility (West-inghouse is a subsidiary of British Nuclear Fuels) to build up the infrastructure of our biggest trade competitor, along the way sharing advanced nuclear technology with Chinese conglomerate that had, in the past, shared nuclear know-how with Iran and Pakistan.

John Hart, a spokesman for Oklahoma Republican Sen. Tom Coburn (who would later sponsor the Senate version of the Sanders amendment), laughs when asked what his opponents were using as an excuse for the bill. "One reason I got," Hart says, "was that if we build nuclear power plants in China, then China would be less dependent on foreign oil, and they would consume less foreign oil, and so as a result our oil prices would go down." He laughs again. "You'd think there would be more direct ways of lowering gas prices," he says.

Oddly enough, Coburn, a hard-line pro-war, pro-life conservative who once advocated the death penalty for abortion doctors, is a natural ally for the "socialist" Sanders on an issue like this one. Sanders among what he and his staff call "honest conservatives," people like California's Dana Rohrabacher and Texas libertarian Ron Paul, with whom Sanders frequently works on trade issues. "A lot of times, guys like my boss will have a lot in common with someone like Sanders," says Jeff Deist, an aide to Rep. Paul. "We're frustrated by the same obstacles in the system."

In the case of Westinghouse, the bill's real interest for the Senate had little to do with gas prices and a lot to do with protecting a party member in trouble. Many of the 5,000 jobs the loan was supposed to create were in Pennsylvania, where Rick Santorum, the GOP incumbent, was struggling to hold off a challenger.

"Five billion for 5,000 jobs," Sanders says, shaking his head in disbelief. "That's $1 million per job. And they say I'm crazy."

This morning, with the Senate vote only a few hours away, the lobbying has kicked into very high gear. That lobbyists for Westinghouse are phone-blitzing senatorial offices is no surprise. Somewhat more surprising are reports that the Ex-Im Bank itself is hustling the senatorial staff.

"Technically speaking, government agencies aren't allowed to lobby," says Gunnels. "But they sure do a lot of informing just before big votes."

The document that has just spilled over the Sanders fax line is printed with a cover sheet from the Ex-Im Bank. It looks like an internal memo, sent by Ex-Im's "Senior Legislastive Analyst," Beverley Thompson.

The document contains a series of cheery talking points about the Ex-Im loan to China, which taken together seem to indicate that the loan is a darn good idea. Nowhere does the document simply come out and say, "We recommend that the Sanders amendment against this loan be defeated." But the meaning is fairly clear.

One odd feature of the document is a notation at the top of the page that reads, "FYI – this info has not been cleared." In government offices, documents must be cleared for public consumption before they can be distributed outside the agency. What this memo seems to suggest, then, is the recipient was being given choice inside info from the Ex-Im Bank, a strange thing for the bank to be doing out in the open.

The Sanders office has seen this kind of thing before. In the summer of 2003, it received a very similar kind of document purportedly from the Treasury. Printed on Treasury stationery, the document contained, like the Ex-Im memo, a list of talking points that seemed to argue against a Sanders amendment. The issue in that case involved a set of new Treasury regulations that would have made it easier for companies to convert their employees' traditional pension plans into a new type of plan called a cash-balance pension plan.

Among the companies that would have been affected by the regulations was IBM, which stood to save billions by converting to this new system. And guess who turned out to have written the "Treasury Department Memo" that was circulated to members of Congress, on the eve of the vote?

That's right: IBM.

"It was hilarious," recalls Gunnels. "The Treasury Department logo was even kind of tilted, like it had been pasted on. It looked like a third-grader had done it."

Persistent questioning by Sanders' staff led to an admission by the Treasury Department that the document had indeed been doctored by IBM. The company, in turn, issued a utterly nonsensical mea culpa ("We believed that we were redistributing a public document that we had understood was widely distributed by the Treasury") that has to rank as one of the lamer corporate non-apologies in recent years.

It seemed obvious that the company had acted in conjunction with one or more Treasury employees to create the phony document. But no Treasury employee has ever been exposed, nor has IBM ever been sanctioned. "They turned the case over to the Inspector General's Office," says Gunnels. Jeff Weaver, Sanders' chief of staff, adds, "And they've done absolutely nothing."

So long as the investigation is still open, Gunnels explains, there is no way to request documents pertaining to the case through the Freedom of Information Act. "That investigation will probably stay open a long time," he says.

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