Previously posted at Western Journalism
by Allan Brownfield
ALEXANDRIA, VA — In mid-January, Congress rushed through a massive spending bill of 1,582 pages; the accompanying explanatory statements added another 1,278 pages. It was voted on only 44 hours after it was posted, giving members of Congress less than a minute to read each page — if they gave up a night’s sleep.
When asked whether he read this $1.1 trillion bill, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) was honest. He responded, “Nobody did.” This bill will fund the federal government for the rest of fiscal year 2014, which ends September 30, 2014. The bill increases federal spending by $44.8 billion this year over the spending level previously set by Congress.
How many members of Congress know that this bill gives the oil and nuclear industries $154 million more than the Energy Department requested for nuclear energy, and $141 million more than requested for fossil-fuel development? How many are aware that the bill skirts a ban on earmarks by providing more than $44 million for the Army Corps of Engineers that the administration had not requested — or that the Pentagon was given $666 million to study illnesses such as breast cancer that have little to do with matters of national defense? The list of what members of Congress do not know is in the bill is a long one.
None of this is new. In 2010, Congress passed, and President Obama signed, the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. At 2,319 pages, it is significantly longer than previous financial reform laws and approaches the extraordinary length of the Affordable Care Act. By comparison, the Federal Reserve Act of 1913, which established the Federal Reserve banking system and the single national currency, was 31 pages long. The Glass-Steagall Banking Act of 1933, which overhauled the entire banking system in light of hundreds of bank failures, was 37 pages long.
The complexity in legislation has created an industry of lobbyists and consultants — often former members of Congress and former congressional staff members — to help individuals and businesses to cope with what has been imposed upon them. University of London economist Anthony G. Heyes notes, “It is precisely the complex, opacity, and user-unfriendliness which underpin the value of their expertise” that translate into “selling advice to those they previously regulated.”
Peter Schweitzer, president of the Government Accountability Institute and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, tells the story of Amy Friend, a chief aide to Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-CT) in crafting the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill and former chief counsel to the Senate Banking Committee. “After the bill passed,” he writes, “and became law, she left Capitol Hill and became managing director at Promontory Financial Group, which describes itself as ‘a premier global financial consulting firm.’ This Washington-based consulting firm is headed up by many people like Friend — people who were once responsible for erecting or interpreting arcane financial regulations in public service and then joined the group, where they can charge high fees to help firms interpret and comply with these befuddling regulations…. Banks complain about Promontory’s high fees, which can run up to $1,500 an hour. Eugene Ludwig, the former comptroller of the currency under Bill Clinton, reportedly makes $30 million a year running Promontory.”
Or consider Daniel Meade, who was chief counsel to the Financial Services Committee under Chairman Barney Frank (the “Frank” of Dodd-Frank). Meade left Capitol Hill for Hogan-Lovells, an established lobbying firm. When Meade arrived, the firm announced that Meade was “a principal drafts person of substantial portions of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act.” The firm explained that Meade would be “representing financial services entities and other entities impacted by the regulation of those entities in connection with a broad range of regulatory and transactional matters, including issues related to the Dodd-Frank Act.”
John Hofmeister, the former president of Shell Oil, saw the process at work: “They deliberately write ambiguity into the law. It’s part of a career-building process. If you are a congressional staffer, you spend your career crafting complex legislative language. This equips you to leverage your post-government competence. The whole system builds on itself.”
“For congressional staffers… it’s a huge payday,” writes Peter Schweitzer. “Sen. Ron Johnson was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 2010 from Wisconsin. A businessman and entrepreneur, he has hired plenty of people over the years. When it came to hiring congressional staffers for his new job, he was struck by a phrase some applicants used during the interview process: ‘cashing in.’ ‘I had never heard that term before when hiring someone in the private sector,’ Johnson says. Time spent working at a lobbying firm or at a consultancy is ‘cashing in.’ Some people work on Wall Street until they have enough money to ‘cash out.’ In Washington, they set themselves up for those jobs in order to cash in.”
Alan Siegel, who for many years has advocated greater simplicity in communications and was called “Mr. Plain English” by PEOPLE magazine, says, “Complexity robs us of time, patience, understanding, money and optimism. The U.S. was founded and governed for over two centuries on the basis of a document that is six pages long. That is 0.1 per cent of the current income tax code, which currently runs a whopping 14,000 pages.” Even IRS commissioner Douglas Shulman admitted on C-SPAN that he cannot do his own personal tax return anymore because “it’s just too complicated.”
Prof. Anthony Heyes believes, “[P]eople working in regulatory agencies have too little incentive to make or keep procedures and practices simple, transparent, and user-friendly.” He argues that one-third of the costs of regulations are “transaction costs”– that is, “paying someone to help you jump through the ‘hoops and hurdles’ of the regulatory process.”
One way to simplify legislation and increase the possibility that members of Congress will read — and understand — the legislation on which they vote is to adopt a single-subject rule for all bills. Article III of the Florida Constitution, for example, “requires that every law shall embrace but one subject and matter properly connected there with.” It would be good, of course, to require members of Congress to actually read the bills they are going to vote on. Bills have been introduced that would require a seven-day waiting period between the time when a bill is ready for a vote and when the final vote actually takes place. Others suggest that all bills scheduled for a full vote on the floor be read out loud. There has even been a suggestion that all members be required to read the bills before voting — and to sign a legal affidavit attesting to that fact.
Such proposals may be fanciful considering the reality of today’s Congress. That we live in a society in which our legislators pass 1,000-bills they have not read and do not understand is beyond question. How to deal with this reality, which has been many years in the making, is a difficult challenge. It is one we would do well to confront.
Allan C. Brownfeld is the author of five books, the latest of which is THE REVOLUTION LOBBY (Council for Inter-American Security). He has been a staff aide to a U.S. Vice President, Members of Congress, and the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee.