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Inside the Horror Show That Is Congress

Page 6 of 6

As for the Ex-Im amendment, the Sanders gambit against it perishes on that Tuesday afternoon, July 19th, as the Senate wallops the Coburn version of the amendment, 62--37. According to Gunnels, the key vote ends up being cast by Democrat Harry Reid of Nevada.

"It was still close, around 24--23 or so, before Reid voted," he says. "It looked like a lot of Democrats were waiting to see which way he would go, him being the minority leader and all. As soon as he voted no, a whole slew of Democrats followed him, and the amendment was dead."

Reid's predecessor as minority leader, Tom Daschle, was a marionette of the banking and credit-card industries whose public persona recalled a hopped-up suburban vacuum-cleaner salesman. In the wake of the Daschle experiment, Reid is the perfect inheritor of the Democratic leadership mantle: a dour, pro-life Mormon with a campaign chest full of casino money. Trying to figure out his motives on this vote proved no less difficult than figuring out what the Democratic Party stands for in general.

When I call Reid's office, spokesman Jim Manley initially refuses to offer an explanation for the senator's vote. He seems weirdly defensive about the issue, and we go back and forth on the matter for a while before he finally reads a statement explaining – or purporting to, anyway – his boss's vote on the China loan.

"As with questions raised about other transactions involving China, legitimate concerns are at issue," he reads. "But rather than Congress intervening in one transaction after another, what we really need is a coherent and comprehensive policy to address the emergence of China as an economic threat. This administration has failed to develop a China policy... and this utter failure has fueled congressional and public unease.... Got that?"

"Um," I say, copying it down. "Sure. Wait – if the problem is that there's no comprehensive policy for China, why give them $5 billion to build nuclear plants? Why not give them, say, nothing at all?"

Silence on the other end of the line. Finally, Manley speaks.

"This administration has failed to develop a China policy," he repeats coldly. "And this utter failure has fueled congressional and public unease..."

In the end, after just a few weeks, every one of Sanders' victories was transformed into a defeat. He had won three major amendments and would likely have won a fourth, if the Rules Committee had permitted a vote on his Patriot Act measure. In each case, Sanders proved that his positions held wide support – even among a population as timid and corrupt as the U.S. Congress. Yet even after passing his amendments by wide margins, he never really came close to converting popular will into law.

Sanders seems to take it strangely in stride. After a month of watching him and other members. I get the strong impression that even the idealists in Congress have learned to accept the body on its own terms. Congress isn't the steady assembly line of consensus policy ideas it's sold as, but a kind of permanent emergency in which a majority of members work day and night to burgle the national treasure and burn the Constitution. A largely castrated minority tries, Alamo-style, to slow them down – but in the end spends most of its time beating calculated retreats and making loose plans to fight another day.

Taken all together, the whole thing is an ingenious system for inhibiting progress and the popular will. The deck is stacked just enough to make sure that nothing ever changes. But just enough is left to chance to make sure that hope never completely dies out. And who knows, maybe it evolved that way for a reason.

"It's funny," Sanders says. "When I first came to Congress, I'd been mayor of Burlington, Vermont – a professional politician. And I didn't know any of this. I assumed that if you get majorities in both houses, you win. I figured, it's democracy, right?"

Well, that's what they call it, anyway.

This story is from the August 25th, 2005 issue of Rolling Stone.


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