Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Response to Comments About Solutions to the “Pork Problem”

G-Veg asks in the Comments to my previous post for some solutions to the "pork" problem. My answer exceeds the space for comments, so I’ll post it for all to see.

By solutions, we have to first decide if we are talking about actual solutions or merely politically palatable solutions? If the latter, than legislation like the Corburn-Obama bill is about the best you're ever going to get. If, however, you want actual solutions, well good luck. Most of those, as I indicated toward the end of my previous post, are what I call "process solutions." Nevertheless, since the question was asked, I'll list a few just so you don't think I'm making them up:

1) Tighter budget rules that will force members to complete appropriations bills by set legal deadlines. Such restrictions will go a long way towards preventing so-called "omnibus" legislation that so frequently becomes a proverbial Christmas tree for "special interest" projects and other "pork." It's a well-known, but never reported fact that once a bill gets over 500 pages long, it's a sure bet no one will read it all before voting "aye."

2) Longer deadlines between committee action and floor action to allow Members the chance to scour appropriations bill for "pork" projects. Often there is only 24-48 hours, at best, for non-appropriations members to review the committee's bill before votes on the floor.

3) Open rules in the House to allow amendment and debate on appropriations measures. This will reduce the influence of the appropriation committee members because their "pork" projects will be subject to more scrutiny and amendments to strike them from bills. Conversely, it will, however, greatly increase the time required to debate and consider spending measures.

4) Stronger supermajority voting rules for points of order. This will prevent budget act waivers and other procedural moves that permit additional spending without really considering the impact on the overall fiscal health of the country.

5) Subject conference reports to points of order if they contain measures that are not in either the committee passed bill or in the floor enacted measure in at least one chamber. Often the most egregious "pork" projects are inserted at conference committee because what comes out of conference is not subject to further amendment.

That’s just for starters. There are plenty more, but as you can see they are not the kinds of things campaigns are won and or lost on. Moreover, many of my suggested reforms face the problem that they are incapable of being implemented permanently because they are changes to the rules of the body. Rules changes, at least in the House, are requried to be adopted by majority vote at the start of each Congress. That doesn't mean the rules can't change during a Congress, but any such changes only last as long as the current Congress is in session unless approved by the next Congress. So even if you got one Congress to enact some of these “reforms” the next group 2 years later could change their minds without anyone really noticing. The Senate, on the other hand, considers itself one continuous body because only 1/3 of the members stand for election each Congress; therefore, they can change their rules at any time.

Why not just get Congress to pass a law requiring enactment of some of these “reforms” you ask? Well, there is the principle that one Congress cannot bind a future Congress. For example, the 109th Congress cannot pass laws that dictate how members of the 112th Congress must deliberate or vote on specific legislation. This principle, while fundamentally sound, limits the ability for the body to undergo massive change without some inside institutional pressure to do so. The last time such an event occurred was 1995 with the start of the 96th Congress when the GOP took control. They, as you may recall, instituted numerous rules changes to correct the ills that they had experienced as the minority. Some of them were positive, like term limits on committee chairs, but others were not so grand and have made the body even more majoritarian than it previously was. Hence, Speaker Hastert’s “majority of the majority” rule, which unofficially states that no legislation will be considered by the House unless a majority of the GOP majority is in favor of passage. Since the House has some 220 Republicans, what this means is that effectively 110 members control the fate of national legislation (give or take a couple as I can’t seem to remember exactly how many GOP’ers there are). Combine that with the Rules Committee’s now extensive ties to the House leadership, and you get a system in which legislation cannot pass or be offered without overwhelming GOP support. Hence, no minority majorities in this House, which makes amendments, even ones with significant bi-partisan support, difficult to come by.

I could go on, but I think you get the point. The “pork” is here to stay and there is unlikely to be a significant ground swell of electoral dissatisfaction that will change that. Look, I mean even after the numerous bribery scandals that have permeated the House (1 conviction, (Randy Cunningham) 2 resignations (Bob Ney, Tom DeLay), and at least one continuing investigation into alleged bribery and other wrongdoing (William Jefferson)), these guys still can’t agree on a so-called “lobbying reform” bill. And, mark my words, they won’t agree on one, and after this election cycle all will be forgotten and things will return to “business as usual.” A gloomy picture I know, but it’s the reality of life in Congress, for better or worse.


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