For many Americans, the inner workings of Congress remain a complete mystery. So, in a few hundred words I’ll try to break down some of the most egregious gimmicks, many of which will come into play as Congress rushes to finish their end-of-year business.
First, some accounting gimmicks.
It is a time-honored tradition in Congress to spend lavishly on domestic programs, while short-changing the men and women of our military. Of course, no lawmaker wants to be accused of short-changing our troops, so they inevitably backfill military funding. As a result, Congress ends up spending more money than they “intended” because they cannot find a domestic spending program they do want to cut.
Similarly, Congress can raid the Overseas Contingency Operations Transfer Fund (think, war funding). Earlier this month, South Carolina’s Jim Clyburn, a top Democrat, suggested “we ought to look at the overseas contingency account” to pay for our end of year needs. It is intellectually dishonest to count the savings from the announced drawdown in Afghanistan and the withdraw from Iraq as an offset for other spending. The money would not be spent anyway.
Perhaps the most complicated are changes in mandatory program spending, or so-called CHIMPs. Basically, Congress caps spending on mandatory spending programs and counts the unspent money as savings, which they can use to offset additional spending. The trick, however, is that the funding for these programs are restored each year, so the savings is just temporary, and only serve to hide spending increases.
Next, some procedural tricks of the trade, which often serve to undermine transparency and accountability.
In both chambers, a “voice vote” allows lawmakers to vote yes or no without having their actual position recorded. In other words, lawmakers’ constituents have no way of knowing how their elected representative voted, or whether they were even there for the vote. Just last week, the House passed the POWER Act, which would expand the misguided Jones Act. Not only would it increase protectionist measures, but it would also likely be a World Trade Organization violation, subjecting the U.S. to retaliation from other countries. Unfortunately, constituents do not know where their members stand.