Congressional Gimmicks

Dan Holler

12/12/2011 12:01:00 AM - Dan Holler

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.

It is often said the Senate runs by unanimous consent (UC). And in part, that is true. Unanimous consent is granted for committee meetings, to begin debate, to proceed to legislation, etc. The problem is that unanimous consent is also used to pass legislation. By some accounts, 94% of all Senate legislation is passed by unanimous consent. No transparency. No accountability. All constituents know is that their Senators were not on the Senate floor at the exact moment to object; and to be clear, any single Senator can object to unanimous consent and force a debate and recorded vote.

Then there is the innocuous-sounding “suspension calendar” in the House, which allows for the expedited consideration of legislation that is considered non-controversial. The legislation is not subject to amendment or even a motion to recommit, and time of debate is severely limited. If it was only used for naming post offices, perhaps it would be fine, but it is frequently used for much more than that. Earlier this year, the House used the suspension procedure to vote on an extension of business subsidies. Subsidies, really?

This is the takeaway: whatever you learned from Schoolhouse Rocks or high school civics need not apply. Instead, every child in America should be taught Nancy Pelosi’s infamous quote: “we have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it.” Our Congress operates by that standard.

Even in the most scrutinized legislation, like the Budget Control Act (BCA), surprises loom. In an attempt to sell the debt deal to conservatives, supporters claimed the top line on discretionary spending would be $1.043 trillion. While the Ryan budget came in at $1.019 trillion, the BCA was still lower that the previous year’s spending, which was at $1.052 trillion – or so supporters claimed.

In reality, the BCA included an $11 billion loophole for “disaster” funding. To be clear, there is nothing “emergency” about this money, as it would be paying for past disasters, including Hurricane Katrina. If this was indeed necessary spending, it should have been included in the top line. The reason it wasn’t? Because it would bring the top line to $1.054 trillion, slightly above 2011 levels.

As we move toward Friday’s spending deadline, ask yourself what Congress is really doing.