There may have been a time in American history when members of Congress could not properly be presumed to be hoodlums who had merely gained legal sanction for their activities. Not likely perhaps, but at least theoretically possible.
No longer, however. Before it left town last December, Congress voted to shut down two conservative newspapers, endorse the right of congressmen to fly their girl friends on federal planes, reward a senator's campaign supporter with an $8-million grant to the contributor's favorite charity, and distribute generous slabs of pork to universities, developers, municipalities, and other favored interests across the country. It was Congress at its most natural—and its worst—exhibiting a form of civic pornography that our democracy seems incapable of controlling.
America's finest no longer bother to approve an official budget and pass individual appropriations bills: Congress instead routinely ignores statutory deadlines and flouts its own rules, relying on one massive Continuing Resolution, or CR, to fund virtually the entire federal government. The CR is a pernicious creature, violating the constitutional balance by emasculating the president's veto power and allowing congressmen to escape public scrutiny by burying amendments in thousand-page bills.
However, in its rush to adjourn in 1987, Congress produced a masterpiece by even its own unenviable standards. Most unique was the legislators' vote to close two major newspapers that had criticized leading Democrats.
Congressional leaders first tried to use the CR to resurrect the "fairness doctrine" that empowers the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to regulate the "fairness" of broadcasters' programming; President Reagan stymied their effort by threatening to veto the entire bill. However, the House and Senate conferees conjured up an even more noxious amendment that the administration was unaware of and that most members of Congress did not see before approving the CR.
The FCC prohibits "cross-ownership" of a TV station and newspaper in the same market—one of many archaic broadcast regulations. The commission can, however, waive the rule, as it did temporarily for Rupert Murdoch, who owns the New York Post and Boston Herald, as well as a TV station in both cities. Murdoch had planned to apply for a permanent waiver.
But Sen. Edward Kennedy (D–Mass.), routinely assailed by the Boston Herald as the "fat boy" and the "world's oldest juvenile delinquent," decided that it would be, in his words, "best for the nation and best for Boston" to silence Murdoch. So he enlisted Sen. Ernest Hollings (D–S.C.) to add language prohibiting any change in FCC rules or any extension of waivers—a provision that affects only Murdoch.
So unless New York's two senators are successful in their effort to reverse Hollings's amendment, Murdoch will have to either shut down the papers or hold a fire sale. If any good has come out of this shameful episode, it is that Congress's heavy-handedness has dramatically exposed the myth that broadcast regulation is not political and protects the public.
A racier bit of abuse involves federal transport for congressional girl friends. In February 1986 Rep. Charles Wilson (D–Tex.) arrived in Pakistan and asked the embassy to fly him and Annelise Ilschenko, a lobbyist, to another city. The Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), in control of the planes, said no, since she was neither family nor staff.
Wilson told embassy officials he'd retaliate with budget cuts, and he tried, unsuccessfully, to reduce the DIA's funding later in 1986. He finally made good on his threats last winter, adding amendments to the CR eliminating the DIA's exemption from personnel cuts and cutting six of the agency's planes. (The conference committee eventually restored funding for four of them).
"It can't help but look like this kind of spoiled congressman with a bloated sense of self-importance trying to get back at someone for not flying his girlfriend around," Wilson acknowledges, but he refuses to defend his action. His staff says the congressman just wanted the DIA to receive a fair share of budget reductions—but his vendetta began in 1986.
Of course, it is hard to imagine a federal bureau that couldn't stand being cut. But we would be better off if Congress based spending levels on something other than personal spite.
But the CR is not really about budget reduction. Especially when you're a friend of and campaign contributor to a senator.
Zev Wilson is a board member of Ozar Hatorah, an organization concerned about North African Sephardic Jews. It has never been a favorite of the American Jewish community, so Wilson (Zev, not Charles) hit up his friend Sen. Daniel Inouye (D–Hawaii), to whose 1985 campaign he had contributed $1,000. Inouye then stuck into the CR, over State Department objections, an $8-million appropriation for—guess what?—Ozar Hatorah, to build refugee schools in France.
Why should American taxpayers fund such an enterprise? The preservation of the Sephardic Jewish "religion, language and culture" is a worthy cause, says Inouye: Wilson's political backing had nothing to do with the issue. Of course. (Under enormous public pressure, Inouye now says he "made an error" and will ask Congress to undo the dirty deed.
The CR was loaded with this sort of pork. Let us count just a few of the ways taxpayers suffered so influential interest groups could enjoy life to the fullest:
• Beekeepers pressured Congress to lift a $250,000 limit on support loans. Rep. Silvio Conte (R–Mass.) estimates that 15 honey producers could gain $6 million.
• Conte, who fought the sweet deal for beekeepers, won a $60,000 grant for the Belgian Endive Research Center at the University of Massachusetts.
• Sunflower farmers' request for a new price support program was turned down—but Uncle Sam will buy $10 million worth of sunflower oil as a consolation.
• Sen. Lawton Chiles (D–Fla.), the Budget Committee chairman who regularly denounces the deficit, pushed through a $25-million research grant for…the University of Florida.
• The National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, believing that $53.1 billion in subsidies over the last 14 years was not enough, won approval of an amendment allowing local coops to refinance $2 billion in federally guaranteed loans, with no prepayment penalty.
• House Speaker Jim Wright (D–Tex.) inserted into the CR language directing the Federal Aviation Administration to give "high-priority consideration" to a new airport in Fort Worth—it just happens to be located in his district.
• Rep. Joseph Early (D–Mass.) successfully lobbied for an amendment forcing the Economic Development Administration (EDA), one of many federal slush funds, to provide $1 million for a high-tech research facility in Massachusetts.
• Sen. Lowell Weicker (R–Conn.) used the same tactic to subsidize a private research organization in his state.
• Oklahoma State University won a $250,000 EDA grant for an international trade center through the efforts of Rep. Wes Watkins (D–Okla.).
• Sen. John Stennis and Rep. Jamie Whitten, both Mississippi Democrats, arranged $3 million for the Institute of Technology Development in their state.
• The CR also included a $260,000 grant for cranberry research, $5 million for a Cleveland harbor project, $50,000 to study New Mexico wildflowers, and $97.3 million in grants to 10 different colleges for water quality research.
And the list, unfortunately, goes on.
We are more than seven years into the Reagan revolution and nothing seems to have changed on Capitol Hill. Indeed, the stench may have gotten worse: who in 1981 would have predicted that liberal Democrats would eventually use the budget process to surreptitiously close down a critical newspaper?
Nor is there any reason to expect the situation to improve, whoever is elected president in November. Congress must abandon its parochial perspective, and that will not happen as long as voters expect their elected officials to bring home the bacon in the form of federal money. In short, we can look forward to a rerun of Congress's sorry budget show next December.
Contributing Editor Doug Bandow is a Washington-based syndicated columnist.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Washington: Your Congress at Work".