2010/07/20

Legislation nightmare

The San Jose Mercury News is running a series of articles, "How our laws are really made", with videos, about how lobbyists participate in the drafting of legislation that the sponsor often knows little about. See Part 1 and Part 2.

These articles resonate with my own experience working as a volunteer lobbyist on Capitol Hill 1970-72. I didn't bring money or votes, but I did bring skills and the willingness to work, beginning with answering mail and proceeding to first reviewing legislation and then drafting it. That earned me access.

In the course of that I learned why professional lobbyists have the undue influence they do. It mainly comes from their greater ability to do research and staffwork. The issues that Congress and state legislatures are confronted with each year exceeds by several orders of magnitude what members and their staffs can even read, must less understand or work on intelligently. They do not have "domain knowledge" of most of the subjects they must legislate on, and they can't get that by just holding hearings for "expert witnesses". That is just a charade. I once stood on the side of a hearing room scribbling notes with questions for the members and answers for the witnesses, neither of whom had a clue about the subject of the hearing. I was the closest thing to an expert in sight.

Much of the staffwork is and must be done by lobbyists, often on subjects in which they are not interested, but as a service to earn access.

Send a rough draft of a bill to the Congressional Research Service to put in final form? Hah! Lots of jokes in that. They couldn't even get the cites right for what would need to be amended. Often their version would do the exact opposite of what the member intended.

I used to go out in the evening to the Hawk and Dove, which is still near the Capitol, and overhear congressional staffers meeting with their handlers to get their orders and envelopes containing legislation. In most of the conversations I overheard, the handlers were not private sector lobbyists, but people from executive branch agencies. If you think the CIA might be controlling Congress, you would be partly correct.

If a new congressman takes office and tries to pursue his own reform agenda, he will soon discover he is frozen out. Eventually, he may complain to a colleague, who will advise him that to get anything done, he needs to hire a professional staffer, and he just happens to know of one who's available. So the no longer quite new member hires the staffer, and suddenly his phone calls get returned and members become willing to talk to him. He might even make some progress on his own agenda items, although probably none will make it to passage. All he will be doing is staffwork for the leadership in his body. That is the origin of the old saying, "If you want to get along, go along."

From what I observed, I became amazed that we don't have catastrophes every week or so. No one in government, or for that matter in the private sector, really know what they are doing. The only reason it works as well as it does is that people have the delusion that everyone else knows what they are doing and are doing it. If the curtain were drawn, the entire thing would fall apart.

If the American people really knew what goes on in legislative bodies (or courts, or administrative agencies), they would have screaming nightmares and look for bunkers or distant islands as places to hide.

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