Welcome to a clear, cold, invigorating 2013.
I woke up this morning to news that the "fiscal cliff" had been averted. Digging into the news, I quickly learned that the "news" was, as usual, not quite the whole story.
As I have written before, in "Cliff Notes", the "cliff" is more like half a fix than a national tragedy, but our representatives in Washington seem bent on whipping up hysteria over the mortal threat of returning our tax law to that of 2001, and cutting 10% of "discretionary" federal spending. (about 3% of total spending)
In any case, the news is that the deal is done. The Senate voted on a bill at 2 AM this morning (89 yeas, 8 nays), and the House will vote "soon". Since I am a citizen, and I care about these things, I visited the congressional website to see what was actually in the legislation. Surely I should not agitate either for or against this legislation until I have at least tried to read it.
I can report to you today that I have failed.
I was expecting to find a few pages of text, or maybe a summary description of the legislation being considered, that would explain its provisions. What I found was a puzzle that is 154 pages long. We can rest assured that the 89 Senators who voted on it this morning did not read it, much less give the "deal" a reasonable public airing before voting.
This looks like another round of a familiar pattern:
- Huge crisis is declared.
- Fevered back room "negotiation" up to the last possible moment.
- A huge, complex "deal" is struck.
- The "deal" is passed immediately, via gimmicks to evade procedure.
- Victory is announced, and those who voted for the "deal" are declared "saviors".
Is this the "New Normal" for legislation? Could this be why we are in such deep debt trouble?
I encourage my readers to go to http://thomas.loc.gov. The Library of Congress is an excellent source of information about Congress and its legislation. The relevant bill in the "deal" this morning, as far as I can tell, is HR 8. HR 8 was introduced in July of 2012, and was called the " Job Protection and Recession Prevention Act of 2012". In July, this was 5 pages long. As passed this morning, it is 154 pages long and is now called "American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012"
Visit the link labelled "all Information" on Thomas. Follow - if you can - the process followed by HR 8 from last summer to passage by the senate in the wee hours of Jan 1st, 2013. Note the amendments that are described as "In the nature of a substitute". See if you can figure out what the amendments actually do.
You might be wondering how it is that Sen. Reid and Sen. McConnell can make a "deal" at 11:59 PM on New Year's Eve, and have 154 pages of legislation passed two hours later.
The technique is a simple one. You take legislation that has already passed through the many procedural hoops, and pass an amendment that replaces it - all of it - with something else. This was done in Congress with the PPACA (aka. Obamacare), and with the Minnesota Vikings stadium legislation. In the case of the Minnesota Vikings' stadium, the "vehicle" bill was an obscure veterans appropriations bill, which was replaced - title and all - by an amendment with a Vikings stadium bill. (Read about this in the Minn. LEA 2012 report, item 1)
In the case of the "cliff" deal, HR 8 was 5 pages long as introduced, and as I wrote this, the PDF version of HR 8 became available. (about 11:30 AM CST) It is 154 pages long, and bears no resemblance to the original bill.
This technique to evade legislative rules is now common at both the state and federal levels. Congressional rules try to ensure that proposed legislation gets a fair hearing and plenty of time for the public to weigh in. Public hearings, readings, committee votes try to ensure that no back room deals are rammed through and made law in the dark of night.
Isn't that exactly what we got last night?
What we have now is congressional rules that are empty ritual, while gimmicks are used to pass anything of consequence. The accountability that the rules are meant to provide is lost. The transparency of having each bill contain one subject, and offer an up or down vote is buried in the blizzard of horse trading and pork packing that we now call "legislating".
Will the people rule? Will the people applaud this "deal"? Is this the way we want our government run?
Self government has already been made difficult by the number and complexity of our laws, but if we encourge this sort of constant churn of law, evasion of process and minimal transparency, and flouting of procedure, self government will slip from our grasp.
Our elected officials take an oath to "protect and defend" our constitution. The constitution does not set tax rates, or spending levels. The constitution lays out the processes and procedures that allow The People to rule. We, The People, have a duty to defend our constitution if we want to keep that ability.
The process that brought us this "cliff deal" is a mockery of legislative process, and the spirit of our constitution. Regardless of the content of the "deal", the process used to create it must be condemned.
This is our nation. Will we insist that our representatives fulfill their oaths?Ultimately, they are answerable on this earth only to us.