- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 24, 2009

Real-time democracy

Instead of waiting around for Congress to pass his legislation to require that all bills be posted online before getting a vote, Rep. John Culberson found a way to start doing it himself.

(Corrected paragraph:) The Texas Republican recently attended a technology conference and came across a vendor that said it could post legislation and let people comment on it. Mr. Culberson thought this would be a great way to reach out to his constituents and quickly arranged for the company, SharedBook Inc., based in New York., to post health care legislation on his congressional Web site.

For now, only his constituents can access the text. His site requires people to enter their residential ZIP code in order to read and comment on it, although his office will consider opening it up to the public later.

“This is another brick in the foundation of the building of a real-time democracy,” Mr. Culberson told The Washington Times, though he noted that it comes at a cost.

“It’s fairly expensive to do, about $3,000, and I’m doing it out of my office budget,” he said. He also plans to soon post cap-and-trade legislation as well as some recently released memos from the Department of Treasury detailing costs associated with that bill.

Voted down

The Senate has rejected a measure proposed by Sen. Jim DeMint, South Carolina Republican, to turn back on the water pumps in the struggling farming area of California’s Central Valley that were shut down earlier this year to save a three-inch fish.

This is the latest in a series of efforts in recent weeks to undo a biological opinion from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that required that water be cut off to the valley to protect the delta smelt, a small fish that resembles a large minnow.

Republican Rep. Devin Nunes, a Republican who represents part of the Central Valley, has been trying to reverse the measure but has been unable to convince Democrats in the House to hold a floor vote. For their part, many Democrats attribute the area’s farming woes to recent droughts and say giving the valley more water isn’t the right solution.

Fox News’ Sean Hannity took his highly-rated television program there earlier this month to interview the farmers who were asking the government to get the water back. This brought national attention to a problem that had only been covered by a few outlets, such as the Wall Street Journal. Mr. Hannity called his program “The Valley that Hope Forgot” and slammed the Democrats in power for protecting fish at the expense of suffering farmers.

Mr. DeMint put the question to a test Tuesday evening by proposing adding an amendment to the Senate’s Interior spending bill to prohibit any federal funds from being used to restrict the water supply in that area.

It was voted down 61-36.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, voted against it and likened Mr. DeMint’s amendment to let more water flow in her state to the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor.

“I don’t quite understand what is going on here,” she said on the floor of the Senate. “And that is the reason for my objection. I’m not going to put the state of California and the Bay Delta in the threat of another lawsuit. We have enough already and water is a huge, difficult and complicated issue … in a way this is a kind of Pearl Harbor, when everything we are trying to do, to work together, to put Interior in the lead, not to handcuff Interior, and that is the reason I object to the amendment.”

Mr. DeMint seemed to think she was making it too complicated. “Unlike most of the big government solutions coming out of Washington that cost taxpayers billions, this amendment doesn’t cost a single penny,” he said. “We can turn the water on so thousands of Central Valley farmers can get back to work without creating another federal program or bailing out another industry.”

Mr. Nunes told The Washington Times he was “very disappointed” that the DeMint amendment was not approved. “California’s senators are behaving as if they represent minnows, not human beings,” he said.

Threat from HHS

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, had some strong words for the government office that tried to silence an insurance provider based in his home state.

“For explaining to seniors how legislation might affect them, the federal government has now issued a gag order on that company, and any other company that communicates with clients on the issue, telling them to shut up - or else,” Mr. McConnell said of a letter from an office inside the Department of Health and Human Services that asked Humana to quit “misleading” and “confusing” its customers about health care reform legislation.

HHS sent this aggressive request to Humana because the company had sent a mailer to its customers that warned, “Millions of seniors and disabled individuals could lose many important benefits,” if the legislation passes.

The letter by Teresa DeCaro, acting director of Medicare’s Drug and Health Plan Contract Administration Group, read in part: “We are instructing you to end immediately all such mailings.”

“Please be advised that we take this matter very seriously and, based upon the findings of our investigation, will pursue compliance and enforcement actions,” the Sept. 18 letter said.

“It’s hard to imagine any justification for this,” Mr. McConnell said. “But if the people behind this latest effort believe they have some legal justification for shutting up a private company, then they need to explain themselves to the American people. More specifically, they need to explain to 11 million seniors on Medicare Advantage why they shouldn’t be allowed to know how cuts to this program will affect their coverage.”

Amanda Carpenter can be reached at acarpenter@washingtontimes.com