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The Jump-Up-and-Down Congress

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The Congress doesn’t run-it waltzes.

Charles Joseph, Prince de Ligne, Comment to a colleague (1814)

A number of people have written to inquire how legislation is passed in the Congress. There are, of course, many, but two of the most popular are addressed here this week.  The first is for a sponsor of legislation to attach the proposed legislation as an amendment to a bill under consideration.  This can be done repeatedly in the hope that at some point it will not be noticed and will become law, either because of the inadvertence of colleagues, or because the underlying piece of legislation to which it is attached is so important that the amendment will be accepted even though it has nothing to do with the underlying legislation.  The recent consideration of long term funding for highways by the Senate is a good example of this process.

No one disputes that America’s infrastructure is in the worst shape anyone can remember. Tangible evidence of its crumbling is offered with some frequency.  One of the best examples took place seven years ago when a bridge outside Minneapolis on Interstate 35 collapsed killing 35 people and injuring 145 more.  In late July the Wall Street Journal had a piece by David Harrison about the consequences of deteriorating road conditions in this country. Highway spending in the U.S. has fallen by 19% from its peak in 2002. The gas tax of 18.4 cents a gallon hasn’t been raised in 22 years. The last time Congress approved long term funding was in 2005.  Since that date there have been 35 short term funding measures including the one passed by the House and Senate the end of July. The casual observer might assume that since both the majority in the House and Senate agree that the infrastructure is crumbling, the obvious thing to do would be to pass long term funding and get on to other business. That is not how the process worked in the Senate before it went on vacation.

When the Senate was considering long-term funding in late July, assorted amendments were proposed that appeared to have little to do with highways.  Senator Ted Cruz from Texas (who consistently draws into question the value of an Ivy League education) proposed an amendment to the highway funding bill that would block the lifting of sanctions on Iran.  To the observer the only thing Iran and infrastructure have in common is the first letter of each word.   When that attempt failed, another senator tried to amend the highway bill to include a provision banning funding for Planned Parenthood.  That seemed to have even less relevance than the Iran proposal.  When the Senate finally passed a six year extension of highway funding at the end of July it included a provision reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank.  Although that didn’t seem to have any more relevance to highways than Planned Parenthood or Iran, it was agreed by a majority of those in the Senate that it was essential to reauthorize the bank and that seemed the only place it could be done before the Senators went off on vacation. By the time that was passed in the Senate, however, House Members had already left for their holidays so there was no chance that Bill could be considered by the House until it got back to work in September.  Since highway funding was really important, the Senate had no choice but to approve a three months stopgap spending bill to finance federal highway and transportation projects for the next few weeks.  The Export-Import Bank remained in limbo. The House plans to be in session for two weeks in September and during that time it may find the time to consider the Senate’s long term funding bill and the life of the Export-Import bank.

An equally popular way for people in Congress to pass what they consider to be essential legislation, is to jump up and down in the manner of the petulant four-year old and refuse to do anything until he or she has his or her way.  The advantage to that kind of conduct by a four year old is he or she can be sent to his or her room until reason prevails.  No such remedy is available where members of Congress are concerned.  The “jump up and down” method of legislating will be on display when Congress returns in September.  It pertains to funding for Planned Parenthood.

Planned Parenthood has a budget of $1.3 billion of which $528 million came from the federal government in 2014.  It serves 2.7 million clients, most of them low-income women who have no insurance.  The organization offers cancer screenings, birth control counseling and other reproductive services. Federal funding for abortions has been banned for years except in cases of rape, incest, or when a woman’s life is in peril.

As a result of surreptitiously made recordings of conversations with Planned Parenthood personnel discussing the sale of fetal issue,. opponents of Planned Parenthood have been revitalized. Congressional opponents want to cut all funding to Planned Parenthood irrespective of the purposes to which the funds are put.  The word is out that if Republicans cannot block funding for Planned Parenthood any other way,  they may once again resort to the “Jump up and Down” method of legislating by attaching the defunding to budget bills needed to keep the government functioning.  If not passed, there may once again be a government shutdown.   Should that occur, the government will remain on hold until petulance subsides and funding is restored.

There are better way of governing. Someone should tell members of Congress. They lack the sense to figure it out themselves.

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