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Skyline - Houston, Texas

Friday, November 03, 2006

It's Thursday evening, September 28th, and the Senate is putting the finishing touches on the Military Commissions Act of 2006, colloquially known as the "torture bill." It's a law even Stalin would admire, one that throws habeas corpus in the trash, legalizes a vast array of savage interrogation techniques and generally turns the president of the United States into a kind of turbocharged Yoruba witch doctor, with nearly unlimited snatching powers.

The bill is a fall-from-Eden moment in American history, a potentially disastrous step toward authoritarianism -- but what is most disturbing about it, beyond the fact that it's happening, is that the senators are hurrying to get it done.

In addition to ending generations of bipartisanship and instituting one-party rule, our national legislators in the Bush years are guilty of something even more fundamental: They suck at their jobs.

They don't work many days, don't pass many laws, and the few laws they're forced to pass, they pass late. In fact, in every year that Bush has been president, Congress has failed to pass more than three of the eleven annual appropriations bills on time.

That figures into tonight's problems. At this very moment, as the torture bill goes to a vote, there are only a few days left until the beginning of the fiscal year -- and not one appropriations bill has been passed so far. That's why these assholes are hurrying to bag this torture bill: They want to finish in time to squeeze in a measly two hours of debate tonight on the half-trillion-dollar defense-appropriations bill they've blown off until now. The plan is to then wrap things up tomorrow before splitting Washington for a month of real work, i.e., campaigning.

Sen. Pat Leahy of Vermont comments on this rush to torture during the final, frenzied debate. "Over 200 years of jurisprudence in this country," Leahy pleads, "and following an hour of debate, we get rid of it?"

Yawns, chatter, a few sets of rolling eyes -- yeah, whatever, Pat. An hour later, the torture bill is law. Two hours after that, the diminutive chair of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, Sen. Ted Stevens, reads off the summary of the military-spending bill to a mostly empty hall; since the members all need their sleep and most have left early, the "debate" on the biggest spending bill of the year is conducted before a largely phantom audience.

"Mr. President," Stevens begins, eyeing the few members present. "There are only four days left in the fiscal year. The 2007 defense appropriations conference report must be signed into law by the president before Saturday at midnight. . . ."

Watching Ted Stevens spend half a trillion dollars is like watching a junkie pull a belt around his biceps with his teeth. You get the sense he could do it just as fast in the dark. When he finishes his summary -- $436 billion in defense spending, including $70 billion for the Iraq "emergency" -- he fucks off and leaves the hall. A few minutes later, Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma -- one of the so-called honest Republicans who has clashed with his own party's leadership on spending issues -- appears in the hall and whines to the empty room about all the lavish pork projects and sheer unadulterated waste jammed into the bill. But aside from a bored-looking John Cornyn of Texas, who is acting as president pro tempore, and a couple of giggling, suit-clad pages, there is no one in the hall to listen to him.

In the Sixties and Seventies, Congress met an average of 162 days a year. In the Eighties and Nineties, the average went down to 139 days. This year, the second session of the 109th Congress will set the all-time record for fewest days worked by a U.S. Congress: ninety-three. That means that House members will collect their $165,000 paychecks for only three months of actual work.

What this means is that the current Congress will not only beat but shatter the record for laziness set by the notorious "Do-Nothing" Congress of 1948, which met for a combined 252 days between the House and the Senate. This Congress -- the Do-Even-Less Congress -- met for 218 days, just over half a year, between the House and the Senate combined.

And even those numbers don't come close to telling the full story. Those who actually work on the Hill will tell you that a great many of those "workdays" were shameless mail-ins, half-days at best. Congress has arranged things now so that the typical workweek on the Hill begins late on Tuesday and ends just after noon on Thursday, to give members time to go home for the four-day weekend. This is borne out in the numbers: On nine of its "workdays" this year, the House held not a single vote -- meeting for less than eleven minutes. The Senate managed to top the House's feat, pulling off three workdays this year that lasted less than one minute. All told, a full fifteen percent of the Senate's workdays lasted less than four hours. Figuring for half-days, in fact, the 109th Congress probably worked almost two months less than that "Do-Nothing" Congress.

Congressional laziness comes at a high price. By leaving so many appropriations bills unpassed by the beginning of the new fiscal year, Congress forces big chunks of the government to rely on "continuing resolutions" for their funding. Why is this a problem? Because under congressional rules, CRs are funded at the lowest of three levels: the level approved by the House, the level approved by the Senate or the level approved from the previous year. Thanks to wide discrepancies between House and Senate appropriations for social programming, CRs effectively operate as a backdoor way to slash social programs. It's also a nice way for congressmen to get around having to pay for expensive-ass programs they voted for, like No Child Left Behind and some of the other terminally underfunded boondoggles of the Bush years.

"The whole point of passing appropriations bills is that Congress is supposed to make small increases in programs to account for things like the increase in population," says Adam Hughes, director of federal fiscal policy for OMB Watch, a nonpartisan watchdog group. "It's their main job." Instead, he says, the reliance on CRs "leaves programs underfunded."

Instead of dealing with its chief constitutional duty -- approving all government spending -- Congress devotes its time to dumb bullshit. "This Congress spent a week and a half debating Terri Schiavo -- it never made appropriations a priority," says Hughes. In fact, Congress leaves itself so little time to pass the real appropriations bills that it winds up rolling them all into one giant monstrosity known as an Omnibus bill and passing it with little or no debate. Rolling eight-elevenths of all federal spending into a single bill that hits the floor a day or two before the fiscal year ends does not leave much room to check the fine print. "It allows a lot more leeway for fiscal irresponsibility," says Hughes.

A few years ago, when Democratic staffers in the Senate were frantically poring over a massive Omnibus bill they had been handed the night before the scheduled vote, they discovered a tiny provision that had not been in any of the previous versions. The item would have given senators on the Appropriations Committee access to the private records of any taxpayer -- essentially endowing a few selected hacks in the Senate with the license to snoop into the private financial information of all Americans.

"We were like, 'What the hell is this?' “says one Democratic aide familiar with the incident. "It was the most egregious thing imaginable. It was just lucky we caught them."


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