Some Congressional Sausage

So… Hi, my name is Andrew.  Back in the early 1990s, I worked for Congress, and then for various lobbying groups that tried to influence Congress.  I like to joke that I spent two years on Capitol Hill, and two years in seminary as penance for that; and twenty years teaching middle school as penance for both of those things.  Sadly, it’s not much of a joke.

Today is a relevant point.  I read today in the Huffington Post that the Senate passed Fast Track Authority, finally, and now the bill containing those provisions goes to the President to be signed into law.

I spent a fair bit of time today on trying to figure out how this all was done.  And it’s a clever bit of Congressional sausage.  Back in the 1800s, a custom evolved that members of Congress carried around little lists of House and Senate bill numbers on sheets of paper marked “Yes” and “No”.  At least, I imagine that this is how it was done.  There’s so many numbers, and so many amendments, I doubt that many members of Congress can keep them clear in their heads.

And so evolved a dirty trick, much like the one that may have been used over the last few weeks.

See, the text of Fast Track authority has been around for a while. It’s very precise legal language, not at all like the stuff you see in the papers or the screen-pixels.  It has to be.  It’s conferring formal authority on the President to, you know, Do Stuff About Trade (And Not Do Other Stuff).  And it lasts for six years. Through the first term of the next President.  It is in theory, battle-hardened and bureaucracy- and general-counsel-approved.

But until June 18 or so, it wasn’t in the bill that got passed this morning by the Senate.  It was … I don’t know where it was.  It looks like Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin dumped the entire Fast Track Authority amendment into a bill numbered HR 2146.  Before that time, HR 2146 was a bill which made some minor changes to the process by which firefighters, police officers and some other types of federal employees could withdraw money from retirement accounts at age 50 (instead of 68). Here’s the bill as presented to the Senate in mid-May, and to which they made only minor changes.  This bill was very popular: it passed the Senate by Unanimous Consent, basically 100-0 (the way most Senate business that passes at all, passes), and got through the House by a vote of 407 to 5, with 20-ish abstentions and absences.

So then it goes to Resolution. Resolution’s nominal job is to confirm sameness: that all the periods and commas, each and every word, of the final version of the Senate bill, and the final version of the House bill, are the same.  Congress has to vote for one bill, not two, that has to be the same in all particulars, before they can send it to the President for signature and veto.

And the Senate version, passed on June 4, was still about early retirement for firefighters. So was the House version.  And then, June 18, the whole Fast Track authority got added to the bill, and the bill’s title (but not its number), was changed.

I have to wonder how many people voted for this bill thinking that it was about early retirement for firefighters, or even just worked from those cards in their pocket.  They have to look like Masters of the Universe up there on Capitol Hill, even if they’re not.  And I wonder how many people are now trying to figure out how to say, “I meant to do that.”  Certainly some of the meant to vote for Fast Track Authority for the President.  The newspapers have been full of carefully worded news about this for months, even while the exact bill to complain about has been exceedingly difficult to hunt down. (No wonder. The text wasn’t actually in the bill that would eventually pass muster)

But here’s the dark side of it, too.  Congress is a spider-and-snake-filled cesspit of hard-dealing villains, and a good many members of Congress are either good-hearted people who are genuinely not up to the tasks of back-room dealing and back-stabbing; or are up to that task, and use it to far more nefarious purposes than helping people back home. “I meant to do that,” can come from a place of “I was bribed into doing it; or I was coerced through a combination of blackmail and/or leverage; or, I had to choose between voting for this and losing on some other cause I care about, like getting re-elected.” Because no matter how wonderful or awful a given senator or representative may be, their  public and private identities are worlds apart. These men (and women) drink like mad, get in accidents, and have checkered pasts that have sometimes mysteriously disappeared.  A good many of them, over the years, have turned out to have foibles or weaknesses that could be exploited by far more gifted players than them, to turn their constituencies against them: in former times, it was being a closeted homosexual, or having a fondness for overly young girls or what have you.  Who knows what it is today?  Actually, I must admit, I don’t really want to know— how many members  of Congress are there, do you suppose, who were tapped for the House of Representatives because someone had some really damaging dirt on them, that would have wrecked their lives? And, how do you go about continuing to hold that kind of influence over someone’s life?

Do I think they’re all like that? No.  Some of them got where they are because they’re great fighters, and good at managing this kind of work.  Some of them are great at people work, or fund-raising, or networking.  Some of them are probably quite genial sociopaths. Some of them are the real-deal masters of the universe. Some of them started out as pawns, but they’ve advanced to be promoted bishops, rooks, or even queens. Some have cast off the chains that bound them and gained the supposed greatness of their office.  And yet, these folks, by virtue of their alleged power to craft the laws of the United States, are subject to constant efforts of activism and open persuasion, and covert harassment of every sort.  And when you want something from a Congressman, or a Senator, and you have money and power enough, what would you be willing to do to get power over them?  

I suppose it’s telling that yesterday I watched Jupiter Ascending.  Plots within plots within plots, government officials and military personnel and freelance agents and marshals on distant frontiers all cobbling together an effort to win special concessions from the alleged masters of the universe… who are themselves just as subject to trickery and fraud, just as willing to engage in deceit and violence, to attain what they think they want.

And I wonder how many of them are physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually strong enough to resist temptation, or to fight oppression.  And even then, it seems to me, that this Fast Track Authority passed by the skin of its teeth… and only under the presence of the covering story of the Emmanuel AME murders, and the subsequent effort to condemn and pull down the remaining open symbols of the Confederacy.  I don’t think that the AME murders were staged as part of a larger conspiracy, mind you. But I think that the focus on the emotions and tribulations of the assassination gave Congressional leadership a chance to act on this — and a perhaps-genuine desire to help firefighters played into their hands. When you watch C-Span, follow a member of Congress for a while, and see if you can figure out where he keeps his little cards.

For my own part, I find myself stunned at the path this Fast Track Authority took, even though I knew it could be done this way, as it has been done before.  I admire the trickery, the prestidigitation, even as I howl in frustration at the result of this particular magic.  It’s the essence of what Gordon calls enchanting for the long-term: design the amendment, round up supporters, find the votes, and magic it here and there and everywhere a little at a time until it’s all ready to go.   And I think that it points to one of the great frustrations, and helplessness, that many Americans feel toward the actions of their government.  I get eight to ten emails every day that Congress is in session from one activist group or another, trying to rouse enough Americans from complacency to call their senator or representative.  I couldn’t work on anything else but Congress to stop them from doing this, in order to keep up with all these sorts of actions… and frankly, the flow of desperate email urging action is always at the same panicked volume, and the more of these emails that move me to action, the more of them I get.  The act of getting involved alerts other organizations that “hey, this is a live person who calls Congress or writes to them!” and so I become ever more enmeshed in calling for this group or that group, insisting for a saner course of action, or resisting an insane course of action.

I always lose. Always— even when I was sitting in the office of a Member of Congress, speaking directly to his face and to his ears and eyes, I can’t recall a single time when a proposal I thought was stupid and fought, didn’t wind up on the president’s desk anyway.  Can’t recall a single bill I supported getting through Congress, either.

Again, I admire the genius of the managers of the process, even as I fault the result.

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