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Inside the Horror Show That Is Congress

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Every time Congress is ordered to clean up its lobbyist culture, its responses come off like leprechaun tricks. For instance, when the Lobby Disclosure Act of 1995 ordered the House and the Senate to create an electronic lobbyist registry system, so that the public could use the latest technology to keep track of Washington's 34,000-plus lobbyists and whom they work for, the two houses only half-complied.

The secretary of the Senate created an electronic database, all right, but what a database: The system was little more than a giant computerized pile of downloadable scanned images of all the individual registration forms and semiannual reports.

The Senate system, howeever, was a significant improvement over the House system. The House responded to the 1995 law by entirely ignoring it.

All of Washington seems to be in on the lobbyist leprechaun game. News even leaked that corporations had managed to convince the local sports teams, the Wizards and the Capitals, to create special courtside and/or rinkside tickets. The tickets would not be available to the general public but would have an official list price of $49.50 and could be purchased by corporate customers. Why the low list price? Because congressional rules prohibit gifts to congressmen with a cost above fifty dollars.

Amendment 4

The EX-IM Amendment was not the only victory Sanders had scored on the government-waste front that month. In fact, just two days after he passed the Ex-Im amendment, Sanders secured another apparent major victory against a formidable corporate opponent. By a vote of 238--177, the House passed a Sanders amendment to cancel a $1.9 billion contract that the Federal Aviation Administration had awarded to Lockheed Martin to privatize a series of regional Flight Service Stations.

Several factors went into the drafting of this amendment. For one thing, the FAA-Lockheed deal would have resulted in the loss of about 1,000 jobs around the country from the closure of thirty-eighty Flight Service Stations, which are basically small regional centers that give out weather information and provide some basic air-traffic assistance. Thirty-five of those projected job losses would have come from a station in Burlington, Vermont, so in opposing the deal, Sanders was behaving like a traditional congressman, protecting his home turf.

But there were other concerns. The FAA deal was an early test run for a Bush policy idea called "competitive sourcing," which is just a clunky euphemism for the privatization of traditionally governmental services. Sanders is generally opposed to competitive sourcing, mainly on cost and quality grounds.

Beyond that, Sanders sees in issues like the Westinghouse deal and the Lockheed Martin deal a consistent pattern of surrender to business interests by Congress. Too often, he says, Congress fails to tie government assistance to the company's record in preserving American jobs.

"I have no problem with the argument that we should help businesses out," Sanders says. "But if you go to these hearings, no one ever asks the question 'How many jobs have you exported over the years? If we give you money, will you promise not to export any more jobs?"'

He laughs. "It's funny. Some of these companies, they'll be straight with you. General Electric, for instance. They come right out and say, 'We're moving to China.' And if you ask them why, in that case, you should subsidize them, they say, 'If you don't help us, we'll move to China faster."'

Given how powerful Lockheed Martin is on Capitol Hill – the company even has the contract to maintain the server for the computers in Congress – the Lockheed vote was surprisingly easy. Maybe too easy. On the surface, it looked like traditional politics all the way, with Sanders applying his usual formula of securing as many Democratic votes as possible, then working to pry loose enough Republicans to get the vote through. In this case, the latter task proved not all that difficult, as Sanders had natural allies in each of those Republican representatives with targeted flight stations in their districts.

But when the vote sailed through by a comfortable margin, Sanders didn't celebrate. Sometimes, he says, a vote like this one will pass easily in the House precisely because the leadership knows it will be able to kill it down the line.

"I don't want to accuse my fellow members of cynicism," he says, "but sometimes they'll vote for an amendment just so they can go back home and say they fought for this or that. In reality, they've been assured by the leadership that the measure will never make it through."

And if an offending bill somehow makes it through the House and the Senate, there's always the next and last step: the conference committee. Comprising bipartisan groups of "conferees" from the relevant House and Senate authorizing committees, these committees negotiate the final version of a bill. Like the Rules Committee, it has absolute power to make wholesale changes – which it usually does, safely out of the public's view.

With a measure like Sanders' Lockheed amendment, the chances were always going to be very slim that it would survive the whole process. Among other things, President Bush responded to the passage of the anti-Lockheed amendment by immediately threatening to veto the entire Transportation budget to which it was attached. (Bush made the same threat, incidentally, in response to the Ex-Im amendment, which was attached to the Foreign Operations budget.)

"Now the conference committee has political cover," Sanders says. "It's either take them out and restore that loan and that contract or the president vetoes an entire appropriations bill – and there's no funding for Foreign Operations or Transportation. There's really no choice."

In the case of the Lockheed amendment, however, things never get that far. Despite the amendment's comfortable victory in the House, weeks pass, and the Sanders staff cannot find a senator to sponsor the measure in the upper house. Though the staff still has hopes that a sponsor will be found, it's not always that easy to arrange. Especially when the president threatens a veto over the matter.

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