Monday, October 04, 2004

The Dracula Congress

I would wager that there are few graduates of American Government classes who know that this is how things work in the venerable House of Representatives. In fact, I doubt that few Americans realize the threat to democracy that the Republican control of the House presents.

The Boston Globe is publishing a disturbing three-part series on how legislation is really made. A House of Representatives
where a Republican leadership has sidelined legislation unwanted by the Bush administration, even when a majority of the House seemed ready to approve it, according to lawmakers, lobbyists, and an analysis of House activities. With one party controlling the White House and both chambers of Congress, and having little fear of retaliation by the opposing party, the House leadership is changing the way laws are made in America, favoring secrecy and speed over open debate and negotiation. Longstanding rules and practices are ignored. Committees more often meet in secret. Members are less able to make changes to legislation on the House floor. Bills come up for votes so quickly that elected officials frequently don't know what's in them. And there is less time to discuss proposed laws before they come up for a vote.
What's the problem?
  • The House Rules Committee, which is meant to tweak the language in bills that come out of committee, sometimes rewrites key passages of legislation approved by other committees, then forbids members from changing the bills on the floor.

  • The Rules Committee commonly holds sessions late at night or in the wee hours of the morning, earning the nickname "the Dracula Congress" by critical Democrats and keeping some lawmakers quite literally in the dark about the legislation put before them.

  • Congressional conference committees, charged with reconciling differences between House- and Senate-passed versions of the same legislation, have become dramatically more powerful in shaping bills.

  • Bills are increasingly crafted behind closed doors, and on two major pieces of legislation -- the Medicare and energy bills -- few Democrats were allowed into the critical conference committee meetings, sessions that historically have been bipartisan.

  • The amount of time spent openly debating bills has dropped dramatically, and lawmakers are further hamstrung by an abbreviated schedule that gives them little time to fully examine a bill before voting on it.

  • # The dearth of debate and open dealing in the House has given a crucial advantage to a select group of industry lobbyists who are personally close to decision-makers in Congress.

For more details, read the articles. The first two parts are here and here.

Thanks to Tapped for alerting me to this. You'll find more commentary on these articles there.