Congressional & Presidential Irresponsibility

by Harry Browne

December 3, 2004        

You've probably heard that Congress passed a $388 billion spending bill that covered all the appropriations that our representatives couldn't get around to handling before the end of this year's session.

The bill was 3,500 pages long, and you can lay odds that not one Senator or Congressman read the entire bill and probably not even a single page of it. Hence, everyone was shocked when it was revealed that the bill contained a provision to allow the chairmen of the House and Senate appropriations committees or their agents "access to Internal Revenue Service facilities and any tax returns or return information contained therein." In other words, these worthy gentlemen could snoop into your tax return or the return of any other American taxpayer.

I heard one Congressman say that the provision was inserted into the bill by mistake. How does that happen? Did some Congressional staffer intend to put the provision in his doctoral thesis and wrote it into the spending bill by mistake? Or does a provision like that have legs, and can wander into a bill if someone mistakenly leaves the door open?

The entire fiasco points up how ridiculous the legislative process has become. Congressmen and Senators no longer read the bills they vote on. Most likely, their staffers don't read them either. Some of the bills are put together and voted on in the middle of the night with no printed copies available for anyone to read.

Bills Are Excuses for Pork

A few months later, someone actually reads the bill and discovers that a bill that was passed to provide relief for flood victims in North Dakota and Minnesota contains not a single dollar for that purpose but does contain $500,000 for a parking garage and $500,000 to restore the Paramount Theater, both in Ashland, Kentucky plus $16 million for a counter-terrorist Automated Targeting System and foreign aid for Ukraine as well as Loans and grants for the College Station area of Pulaski County, Arkansas not to mention money for the collection and dissemination of statistics on cheese manufacturing in the United States and let's not forget $133,600 "for payment to Marissa, Sonya, and Frank (III) Tejeda, children of Frank Tejeda, late a Representative from the State of Texas."

(Leon Felkins found such provisions in a 1997 bill, H.R. 1469 "The Emergency Supplemental Appropriations bill" which was passed to help victims of the flooding of the Red River, but which contained no aid to such victims. Unfortunately, he's removed from his website his list of all the pork in the bill.)

Before we pass a so-called "Defense of Marriage" constitutional amendment, we need an amendment that requires every Congressman and Senator to certify in writing that he has read a bill in its entirety before he can vote on it. The same must be required for the President before he can sign a bill into law.

If Only We Had a President Who Cared

In my 1995 campaign book, Why Government Doesn't Work, I said:

One sign of a government run amok is that many Congressional bills are hundreds and hundreds of pages long and they include dozens and dozens of provisions that are irrelevant to the bills' topics.

Congressmen rarely read the bills they vote for, and Presidents almost never read them before signing them. Everyone relies on aides and "experts" to assess the bills and even the latter can't read a bill that is rushed through to a vote or altered at the last minute.

In too many cases, Congressmen and Presidents don't even care what's in a bill. They approve it not because of its content, but because of its image "tough on crime," racially correct, welfare reform, "budget-cutting," environmentally pure, or whatever. This is how quotas, asset-forfeiture, draconian regulations, and so many other pernicious practices sneak into the law as "minor" matters hidden in a skyscraper of words. But after the bill's passage, the regulators read all these bills thoroughly and enforce every provision. And then some Congressmen are shocked to learn that their constituents are being harassed.

I will not sign any bill I haven't read. I will consult with advisors, but I will always make the final decision myself, based on what a bill actually says. If a bill is too long for me to read in the ten days the Constitution gives the President to make a decision, I will veto it automatically.

If a bill is ambiguous or too complicated to understand, I will veto it automatically  even if I think it might be aimed in the right direction.

If these standards seem too rigid for this modern age, it is not because the standards are wrong, but because government has become too big and complicated. Restore government to a manageable size and bills will be short, life will be less complicated, and Congress can do all its work in a few weeks each year.

Frank Chodorov once said that he wanted a government small enough to fit into his kitchen. With such a small government, we would have small spending bills with no surprise provisions.