Play by the rules

Posted: Oct 28, 2005 12:05 AM

About 10 years ago, government officials decided to launch a fleet of “environmentally friendly” hybrid buses in the tiny city of Falls Church, Va. It was supposed to be a test market, to see if the technology worked. The city bought one hybrid-electric bus and made plans to buy more.

 One minor problem. The bus didn’t work.

Now, in most cases, that would be the end of the test. The hybrids failed, so that’s that. But this is the government we’re talking about. Officials smoothly shifted gears (even if the buses couldn’t). Today there are four “clean diesel” buses driving the streets of Falls Church, even though clean diesel already existed and we already knew it worked. The buses were purchased, in large part, with federal money. So even if very few taxpayers ever ride the buses, they can at least have the pleasure of knowing they kicked in some $1.8 million to buy them.

The point is that lawmakers don’t have to play by the same rules the rest of us do. When the government decides to do something, it’s going to do it, no matter what. Even when its own rules prohibit it.

Consider the recent Gasoline for America’s Security bill, which squeezed through the House of Representatives by two votes on Oct. 7.

The bill would do plenty of good things, such as encouraging companies to open more gasoline refineries and set up more transportation pipelines. It would do an even more important thing, too: Reduce government involvment in the gasoline business. The bill would make it easier for companies to build refineries, would cut the number of federally-mandated fuels from 17 to six and would make it easier for local governments to escape stifling federal regulations.

President Bush supports the bill. “I commend the House for passing legislation that would increase our refining capacity and help address the cost of gasoline, diesel fuels and jet fuels,” he said in a statement. Simply put, we need this bill.

There’s just one problem. The bill didn’t really pass.

There’s a time limit for House votes. If a member hasn’t voted by the deadline, his/her vote doesn’t count. It’s an age-old technique used to keep House members close to the floor -- they can’t afford to wander off if there might be a vote.

But on this bill, the majority Republicans didn’t have the votes, so they extended the deadline again and again, until the delay stretched to 40 minutes. Democratic members were right to call out “Shame, shame” as the deadline passed and the bill didn’t die.

Of course, this vote is small beer alongside the greatest “vote that wouldn’t end,” the Medicare prescription drug reform vote two years ago. In that case, a 15-minute vote was kept open for three hours -- lasting from 3 a.m. until 6 a.m. -- so party leaders could get the “correct” outcome.

If the actual vote had been allowed to stand, the bill would have been defeated 218-216. However, Republican officials were able to twist enough arms and change enough votes to make the final count 220-215 in favor of this new entitlement.

Rep. Mike Pence is one of the conservative stalwarts who voted against the bill. He says it is unnecessary and will cost taxpayers trillions of dollars. “In one vote, [Congress] added as much in unfunded obligations to Medicare as exist in Social Security today,” Pence noted during a recent speech at The Heritage Foundation. Maybe that’s why so many lawmakers really wanted to vote against the bill.

Lawmakers make the rules the rest of us must follow. The least we can expect is for them to follow the rules they made for themselves. The very first promise in the 1994 Contract with America was that, if elected, Republicans would “require all laws that apply to the rest of the country [to] also apply equally to the Congress.” That should be their policy for internal rules as well.

The governing party lost a fair vote on the Gasoline for America’s Security bill, just as it lost a fair vote on the Medicare reform bill two years ago. Instead of bending the rules, the House leadership should admit defeat, go back to the drawing board and rework both measures in a format that a majority of lawmakers can accept in the time allotted for the vote.

Taxpayers will rest easier if they know that the “right” outcome was achieved through a fair vote, even if that means they never get to ride on a hybrid bus.