Whenever a ‘must pass’ bill comes up in Congress, lobbyists and special interests move heaven and earth to attach their favorite items to it—and that’s happening in spades with the Sandy relief act. USA Today brings us some choice morsels from the sausage factory floor:
A Senate-passed version from the end of the last Congress included $150 million for what the Commerce Department described as fisheries disasters in Alaska, Mississippi and the Northeast, and $50 million in subsidies for replanting trees on private land damaged by wildfires.
The objections have led senior House Republicans to assemble their own $17 billion proposal, that when combined with already approved money for flood insurance claims, is less than half what President Barack Obama sought and the Senate passed in December.
The standard trick is to load the bill up with completely unrelated measures, and then viciously and vituperatively attack anyone who votes against the resulting monstrosity as a cold hearted person who wants victims to suffer. The press, sometimes out of ideological bias and sometimes out of sheer sloth, usually cooperates pretty well in this process.
The House GOP is trying to fight back on the Sandy bill, stripping out the pork. But it will be a tough fight. In a year of budget austerity, the hunger of special interests to attach their favorite goodies to the Sandy bill is high; the northeast has a long list of things it wants (and in some cases actually needs) from the government, and, to be sure, the GOP’s hands aren’t clean and there is plenty of GOP and red state pork in the mix.
We wish the House well as it struggles to keep the bill focused on actual relief for actual damages sustained in the storm. In the meantime, it is increasingly apparent that the overall congressional budget and appropriations process is deeply messed up. We hope that watchdog groups and reformers can begin to think not just about fighting the bloat on particular bills, but more broadly about how congressional rules, procedures and even the committee process can be reformed in ways that ensure we get better drafted, more focused bills with fewer extraneous appropriations and provisions on them.
A sloppy and undisciplined legislative process is making government less effective and more expensive than it needs to be; the reform process America needs to succeed in the 21st century must involve serious congressional reform.