This week, the United States Senate will debate, vote on amendments, and perhaps vote on final passage on “infrastructure” legislation that will spend at least $1.2 trillion of taxpayer money. Even though the actual legislative text – the bill itself – had not been shared with Senators and their staff this weekend.
Moreover, the legislation is the product of negotiation among fewer than ten Senators. Senators and staff with expertise in the areas addressed by the legislation were, for the most part, intentionally cut out of the negotiations, and the committees of jurisdiction have been entirely ignored.
The last two decades in Congress have seen a steady migration of power to leadership at the expense of ordinary members of Congress and the committees in which they spend most of their working time. The result is fundamentally anti-democratic legislation like Obamacare, or, in this instance, the “infrastructure” deal.
These legislative abominations all have the same look and feel. The (mostly) secret closed-door negotiations. The announcement of the inevitable last-minute deal followed by propaganda-ridden press releases. Incoherent and sometimes misleading facts sheets that are so fuzzy as to be worthless. Thousands of pages of legislative text hastily written, edited, and presented to Members minutes before the voting process starts.
There is always an insistence on the need to pass the legislation immediately, without time for anyone – advocates, the media, the voting public – even to digest, let alone reflect upon or debate the provisions of the legislation.
There are never any hearings. Never any open debate in any forum in which Members may develop arguments against the legislation. Never any votes in subcommittees or committees. Never any exposure to meaningful questioning by staff, Members, the media, or those in the public who might know something about the issues at hand.
This erosion of the legislative process should be of great concern to everyone in the Republic. When elected representatives cannot participate in the legislative process in a substantive and meaningful way, their votes – and those of their constituents — are essentially voided.
In short, these evasions of the legislative process are fundamentally anti-democratic.
They are also unwise. The reason to have a legislature is that laws derived from the consent of the governed are more likely to be followed, to be just, to be practical. The legislative process is designed to reduce societal friction over time. When everyone is heard, and their sentiments accounted for in some way, there is less likely to be residual anger, resentment, and malicious compliance.
However, when the “process” consists of secret deals being voted on within a few days and with no meaningful debate or opportunities to hear alternatives, widespread acceptance of the outcomes is always going to be unlikely and social friction is guaranteed.
Let’s take the revenue-raising part of the deal as an example of the pathologies of the current approach. As the deal was announced, senators declared that there would be no new funding requirements imposed on taxpayers. They even (later) provided a one-page description of how the revenue requirements of the deal would be met.
It is perhaps the most embarrassing document ever seen in Washington.
They intend to pay for the deal by, among other things, redirecting $205 billion in unspent COVID-19 relief money; vacuuming up $53 billion in unemployment bonus money that some states returned to the federal government; counting on $56 billion in imaginary revenues that will theoretically flow from whatever economic growth results from the deal; $28 billion from “applying information requirements to cryptocurrency” (whatever that is); etc.; etc.
There’s more, but you get the idea.
Most of the cash listed as paying for this particular bad idea is already going somewhere else in government. The rest of the revenue sources are nonsense. The “fact sheet” is honest enough to point out that many of the provisions haven’t even been scored by the Congressional Budget Office, which referees such things.
If we had an actual hearing of the Senate Committee on Appropriations about these ideas, there would be an energetic conversation – informed by those who know a lot about government revenues — about whether there are better things on which to spend the extra $550 billion than “infrastructure.” Then the committee, informed by the debate, would vote.
Then the Senate, also informed by that debate, would vote.
But we are never going to have that debate. Nor are we likely to have much substantive debate on any part of this legislation. Senator Chuck Schumer has decided that there’s no time. Most people know that if something is a good idea, it can withstand some open and direct consideration and that a good idea today will probably be a good idea a week or two from now.
All Senator Schumer knows is that this deal – like all of its kind before — is like a dead fish; the longer it sits in the sun, the more rancid and disgusting it becomes.
The only defensible vote on the deal is no.
• Michael McKenna, a columnist for The Washington Times, is the president of MWR Strategies. He was most recently a deputy assistant to President Trump and deputy director of the Office of Legislative Affairs at the White House.