Congressional marketplace

Posted: Nov 24, 2003 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- Sen. Bill Frist, experiencing a rough rookie year as majority leader, put it publicly to fellow senators late Friday morning. If you want to retain the succulent morsels of pork embedded in the massive energy bill, you better let the whole bill pass because you won't get a chance to pass them individually. This was modern "logrolling," a 19th-century invention for passing lots of bad proposals by bundling them together.

Frist fell two votes short of the 60 senators (out of 100) required to halt debate, a Senate super-majority needed these days to adopt anything controversial in the Senate. That setback evoked no remorse over concocting a monstrosity of a bill that goes $4 billion over Budget Act limits. Unrepentant about the bill, Frist promised to try again before adjournment. Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle, who pushed hard for special ethanol treatment benefiting agricultural interests in his home state of South Dakota, blamed House Majority Leader Tom DeLay's help for energy interests in his state of Texas for sinking the bill.

The tip-off on the congressional mindset came when the House quietly abandoned plans to quit for the year this past weekend. Instead, House leaders made plans to reconvene Dec. 4 and 5 to consider an omnibus appropriations bill. "That gives them a chance to buy votes," one prominent lobbyist explained to me. That is, appropriations might purchase votes for the energy bill. More now than any time since I started covering Capitol Hill in 1957, Congress is a giant, bipartisan, bicameral marketplace.

The 1,200-page final version of the energy bill supposedly addresses serious national problems, and it does contain desirable provisions (including federal authority to issue permits for interstate electricity lines in bottleneck areas). But mainly the bill is a vehicle for special interests. Washington lobbyists have been in a frenzy.

A classic case, described in detail by the Public Citizen liberal watchdog group, involves $800 million in federal loan guarantees for Minnesota-based Excelsior Energy to build a coal gasification plant. Although this would be the largest American facility of this type, neither the Senate nor the House voted on the risky venture. Excelsior was created by executives tied to NRG Energy, which filed for bankruptcy this year after being fined for manipulating energy markets.

Excelsior's executives since January 2002 have contributed more than $15,000 to congressional candidates, with over $7,000 going to Republican Sen. Norm Coleman of Minnesota (elected in 2002). Some 13 lobbyists employed by Excelsior have contributed $44,000 in the same cycle. Minnesota's Democratic Sen. Mark Dayton joined Coleman in voting for the bill.

Support for the energy bill from Daschle and other farm belt Democrats was bought by mandating a doubling of ethanol production in the next 10 years. This puts the federal government solidly athwart the market in dictating nationwide use of the corn-based fuel.

Addressing the Senate after Friday's failed cloture vote, Daschle upbraided DeLay for going one step too far. The Republican leader added an amendment that throws out a lawsuit filed by New Hampshire against oil and chemical manufacturers of MTBE (alleging that the fuel additive has tainted underground water supplies in the Northeast). Opposition by five Republican senators from New England killed cloture on Friday.

Daschle seemed oblivious to what a monstrosity the energy bill would still be, even without the MTBE provision. So were Frist and nearly all Republican senators. Sen. John McCain took the Senate floor last Wednesday to assail the energy bill with the trademark criticism that often offends his colleagues: "I fear for the passage of a 1,200-page, pork-laden bill. The outbreak of Washington trichinosis will be so severe we will be forced to have a field office for the Centers for Disease Control right next to the Capitol."

McCain was the only Republican senator outside New England to vote against cloture Friday. He is one of the very few senators of either party who, apart from partisan considerations, object to today's degrading legislative process. McCain says the energy bill should be called the "Leave No Lobbyist Behind Act of 2003." Brushing themselves off after their defeat on the energy bill, the lobbyists were back at work over the weekend seeking a new venue for pork.