Tuesday, December 20, 2005

How not to legislate

The U.S. Congress never ceases to amaze me. Lately, I've been puzzled by some of the more bizarre procedures and tactics that members of Congress use to pass legislation. From a New York Times article on Dec 14th:
With a budget-cutting measure stymied by stiff resistance to opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, Congressional Republicans began exploring Wednesday a new tactic to win approval of both $45 billion in cuts and the drilling plan.

Lawmakers and senior aides said they were seriously considering tacking the drilling proposal onto a Pentagon spending bill that is among those that must pass before Congress heads home in the next few days... "It's going to be on one bill or the other before I go home," said Senator Ted Stevens, Republican of Alaska, a leading proponent of opening the Arctic plain to oil production.

Where is the connection between drilling in Alaska and the war in Iraq? The sole reason to combine them (admitted by legislators) is to allow an unpopular proposal to pass.

Sure enough, when the House approved the defense spending bill, the provision to allow drilling in the ANWR was tacked on. Democrats in the Senate then vowed to fight it, using a filibuster (another weird and wonderful practice essentially unique to America) if necessary. A Reuters story in the Times this afternoon quotes Stevens, who intends to stand firm:
"Extreme environmentalists think it (ANWR) is their playground, that they should set the policy for Alaska."

Stevens warned if ANWR is dropped from the defense bill, he would seek to delete other items attached to it such as funding for Hurricane Katrina reconstruction, the bird flu pandemic and a program that helps poor families pay heating bills.

Much as I dislike Stevens, I think he's on to something here (though he has it backwards). In a reasonable world, ANWR would not be part of the defense bill, but nor would Katrina-related funding, or anyone else's pet project. Don't get me wrong; I think that these are all worthy issues: the Government should undoubtedly provide more money to New Orleans and other coastal areas, prepare for a bird flu pandemic, and help poor people who cannot afford heating. But their importance entitles them to a fair debate, and they should each receive a vote on their merits. Bundling them into one omnibus bill serves no one's interest.

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