Tuesday, November 23, 2004

America -- a broken democracy?

Spending Bill Held Up by Tax Provision (washingtonpost.com)

Our democracy is broken.
A $388 billion government-wide spending bill, passed by Congress on Saturday, was stranded on Capitol Hill yesterday, its trip to the White House on hold as embarrassed Republicans prepared to repeal a provision that could give the Appropriations committees the right to examine the tax returns of Americans....

... "It's simply representative of the way Congress is now operating," said Allen Schick, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland. "It shows on the one hand how easy it is to put something in [an omnibus bill] without anybody else knowing about it." Although this may look particularly egregious, he said, the giant bill also contains hundreds of other provisions that could not be enacted into law if they were offered as single bills requiring full debate and scrutiny in both houses.

Such huge bills, lawmakers acknowledge, represent a breakdown of the normal budget process. For the second time in three years, House and Senate Republicans, bitterly divided over the level of domestic spending, failed to agree on a budget blueprint, as required by law.

The impasse forced delays in drafting many of the spending bills, and when Congress returned last week from its election recess, it had yet to complete nine of the 13 annual appropriations bills. Seven of the spending bills had never been to the Senate floor for debate, one had never been to the House floor, and one funding the nation's nuclear weapons programs and Army Corps of Engineers water projects was still in a Senate subcommittee.

To overcome this problem, GOP leaders crammed all the remaining legislation into a single omnibus package that, under congressional rules, could not be amended.

It contained all the unfinished spending bills, along with three other pieces of major legislation -- the Satellite Home Viewer Extension and Reauthorization Act, the Snake River Water Rights Act, and the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act.

Along with those measures, lawmakers and staffs added thousands of local projects benefiting home states and districts. Also included in the final bill was a major provision barring states from enforcing laws that require health care providers, hospitals, HMOs or insurers to pay for, provide or give referrals for abortion.

But when the measure was rushed to the floors of the two chambers Saturday, few members had read it. Lawmakers absent from the Capitol for weeks while campaigning for reelection returned for a brief lame-duck session to complete the work of the 108th Congress.

The secretive process, Schick noted, gives GOP leaders enormous power to add provisions that they or special interests might want, and to delete provisions that GOP factions or the White House find objectionable.

Frist, for example, ordered negotiators to accept the abortion provision, even though it had never gone to the Senate floor and was only in the House-passed version of the bill covering health appropriations. Senate opponents agreed not to block its consideration after Frist promised to schedule a vote soon on a bill drafted by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) to repeal the provision.

GOP leaders also deleted provisions on overtime regulations and the outsourcing of government jobs despite support in both houses.

Republicans control the entire government, yet they cannot manage a budget bill.

Oddly enough, the process we now follow gives a few leaders enormous power to punish their enemies and rewards their friends -- and to do so without inconvenient publicity. Imagine that; just by accident we've evolved a budget process that facilitates oligarchic rule and perpetuation of a single party system. This is the way Japanese democracy has worked for the past 40-50 years.

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