Congress at work
May 3, 2013
There are many reasons to hate Congress. Five hundred and thirty-five of them come to mind rather quickly, but there are others, too. The body elected to do the people’s business manages to keep very busy taking care of its own, while the basic functions of government are held together with duct tape and baling wire. It’s really disgusting. Here are a few congressional treats from the last month or so.
After years of pressure, Congress adopted what was known as the STOCK act a year ago. The act is formally the "Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge" act. Up until its passage, it was perfectly legal for members of Congress to trade in the stock of corporations whose businesses would be affected by proposed congressional actions, before those actions became public knowledge. So if, for example, they were going to introduce legislation that would limit offshore oil drilling, the members of Congress and their staff people could run out and short the stock in offshore drillers the day before making the proposal public. That would land the corporate officers in jail, but was perfectly fine for members of Congress.
Under the STOCK act, the trading wasn’t prohibited; they just had to disclose (after the fact) that they had been trading on material non-public information. But just as key provisions were about to take effect, Congress decided to reconsider the matter, and on a voice vote (so nobody is actually on record) repealed the parts of the law that mattered. They cited "national security" concerns, because we all know the terrorists will have won if they know that Senator Flushbottom is investing heavily in the manufacturer of the Rascal Scooter chair just before regulatory changes require Medicare to buy one for everybody over 70. The president quickly signed the legislation, which took effect immediately.
Then there is the sequester, which deliberately staged a train wreck of a budget system. One of the perfectly foreseeable results was that there would be cutbacks in air traffic controllers, and air traffic would get jammed up. That was an intended consequence of the plan. The idea was to make cuts so annoying to the public that Congress would be forced to do their job. Congress voted for it, Obama signed it, and the cuts are taking effect now.
Well, with three-hour delays at airports, Congress decided that the sequester wasn’t such a great idea — at least when it came to airports. So they voted to re-jigger the accounting at the FAA and took money that was supposed to pave runways and used it to pay salaries for air-traffic controllers instead. The budget cuts that affect all other government programs remain in place, but air-traffic control is back to normal. Just in time for Congress to take yet another well-earned vacation. Obama signed that one, too.
When confronted with personal inconvenience or the requirement that they disclose how they are feathering their own nests with inside information about the very industries they are regulating, members of Congress (with the complicity of the spineless Obama) can act with lightning speed. When it comes to doing anything of real substance, they can’t move at all.
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The legislation that would have required background checks on more gun sales went to a quick death. When it comes to meaningful regulation of guns, it was pretty thin gruel. But it was something. It had 90 percent support among the public, but was killed in the Senate, where it got a majority vote but not the super-majority needed to move forward. They could have worked on it longer, but they had planes to catch, and thanks to the restoration of funding to the FAA, those planes would be leaving on time (quick, call my broker!).
There’s a bit of congressional news with a local aroma to it. This winter, the new chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, a Texas Republican named Jim Hensarling, had a big do here in Deer Valley. He had a nice ski vacation with lobbyists from the banking industry. They holed up at the St. Regis. News reports show other members of Congress were there at the same time. Campaign contributions were duly exchanged, and one can assume that conversations over dinner or on the lifts were strictly limited to snow conditions. Surely the topic of bank regulation and strangling the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau never came up. Got a problem with your mortgage? I’m sure Hensarling would be happy to talk it over with you any time you want to fly him to Hawaii. Apparently none of this is illegal.
One thing’s for certain: You know you are staying in a nice place when the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee is available in the hotel gift shop.
Tom Clyde practiced law in Park City for many years. He lives on a working ranch in Woodland and has been writing this column since 1986.