I turned on C-Span the other morning, expecting to watch the latest chapter in the purification-by-fire of Alberto Gonzales, and saw an amazing thing. It was so amazing and so hilarious that I coughed hot coffee all over my new laptop. Congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart, Republican of Florida, was howling on the House floor about the lack of "openness" demonstrated by the new Democratic leadership.
"In bill after bill after bill," he shouted, "the minority is closed out!"
Diaz-Balart...you really have to see this guy to believe him. His public speaking method is something truly awesome to behold. Imagine a Mummenschanz dancer trying to pass a drunk test after downing a bottle of strychnine, and you've got Diaz-Balart explaining himself in Congress. He waves his hands and head spasmodically as he talks, and sometimes actually adds words to match his twitches and gestures that make no sense and do not necessarily relate to the subject at hand.
"It's not theory, not height, not almost closed -- it's a closed rule!" he shouted, demonstrating the nonsensical added word "height" by making a "high-low" gesture with his hands.
The issue at hand -- the reason the esteemed Florida congressman was addressing the House floor -- was the failure of the Democrats to allow an "open rule" in the matter of the Gulf Coast Recovery Act, an aid package directed to hurricane victims. An "open rule" is a bill that is sent to the House floor without any restrictions on the number or type of amendments majority or minority members might want to tack on. For instance, a few years ago, when the reauthorization of the Patriot Act was sent to the House floor, Vermont's Bernie Sanders submitted an amendment to restrict government access to citizens' library records. The Republicans who controlled the Rules committee at the time rejected that and other amendments, and sent a closed rule to the floor.
They did that a lot in those years. In the two years of the 109th Congress, the Republicans allowed only one completely open rule. This was a reflection of a decades-long general evolution in congressional procedure away from bipartisanship and in the direction of unilateralism. The trend really began with the Democrats -- in 1977, when the Democrats were the majority party, eighty-five percent of all bills went to the floor as open rules. By 1994, when the Democrats were kicked out of power, that number had dropped to thirty percent. Particularly during the Reagan years, congressional Democrats had turned the House floor into something of a bully pulpit. And guess who led the Republican charge in bitching about it? You guessed it, Mr. Strychnine-Mummenschanz himself, Lincoln Diaz-Balart. This is the congressman's remarks on the subject back in 1994:
"You know what the closed rule means. It means no discussion, no amendments. That is profoundly undemocratic."
The Republicans then swept into power on Newt Gingrich's coattails, pledging to usher in a new era of openness. "Instead of having seventy percent closed rules," then-new Rules chairman Gerald Solomon said in 1994, "we are going to have seventy percent open and unrestricted rules."
Except it didn't work out that way. Particularly in the Bush years, under the direction of sartorial Jedi-master David Dreier -- a very mean man who wears very nice ties -- the number of open rules dwindled down literally to nothing. That's not a joke -- in the first session of the 109th Congress, there were, for the first time in congressional history, no open rules. And guess who was sitting next to Dreier the whole time as the number two guy in the Rules Committee? Lincoln Diaz-Balart.
I've spent a good deal of time in the Rules Committee in the past few years and I watched that cocksucker sit there with a gloating, cat-who-has-just-eaten-mouse smile as the likes of Jim McGovern, Louise Slaughter and Alcee Hastings begged, literally begged to have this or that amendment allowed (or "made in order," as they say in Congress) so that it could be voted on by the whole Congress. Since Dreier for the most part couldn't be bothered to show up at the committee hearings, it was usually Diaz-Balart who sat in the chairman's chair and chided the Democrats or their witnesses to shut the fuck up.
And it was Diaz-Balart who at the end of the afternoon would gently stack his papers and disappear behind the majority office door so that the bills could be bastardized, clipped and/or rewritten in the middle of the night. In the 108th Congress, for instance, 78 of the 191 rules were reported after 8:00 p.m., and 21 of those were reported at 7:00 a.m. the next day. It was during those years that Rules earned the nickname "Vampire" or "Dracula" congress -- bills would go in reading one way, then come out at 7:00 the next morning with completely different meanings. In 2001, for instance, a health insurance bill reworked in the middle of the night went to the floor with a few minor changes that drastically limited the liability of HMOs who denied coverage to patients. This kind of shit was commonplace back when Diaz-Balart and his buddies were running things.
Now this guy is standing up in Congress and blasting the Democrats for exactly the same thing. "Yeah, it's kind of like one of those prison converts to Jesus," a guy I know in Congress said. "You just don't know how to take it."
Just to be clear on the numbers; so far, the Democrats have allowed one open rule and three semi-open rules. There is a sort of rule that is open to all amendments printed in the congressional record, and this essentially is a time issue -- if you submit it in time, it's allowed. The Republicans in the last two years allowed two of these semi-open rules. So basically in a few months, the Democrats have been about as open as the Republicans were, in total, the last few years.
Nobody is suggesting the Democrats should get a medal for their newfound commitment to openness. Among other things, Senator Harry Reid, who pledged to end late-night shenanigans of the sort that made Dreier and Diaz-Balart famous, inserted a late-night provision into a budget bill last December that transferred a piece of Nevada federal land the size of Rhode Island to state and private interests. That's Reid; the Rules committee, however, seems to have cleaned up its act on that score, not having any late-night sessions yet.
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But the most amazing thing about this Rules debate wasn't Diaz-Balart's outburst about closed rules. It was the specific reason for the outburst. In this particular instance, the Republicans -- specifically Georgia congressman Tom Price -- were pissed that the Democrats had rejected an amendment to apply pay-as-you-go rules (more on that in a second) to the Gulf Recovery bill. When Price took the floor, he first made sure to praise the filthy hypocrite Diaz-Balart for his courageous stand on behalf of the principle of the open rule.
"I thank my good friend for his passion and openness and honesty," he said.
Then he moved on to criticize the Democrats' clampdown on amendments.
"What we are living in," he said, "is becoming a land of Orwellian democracy!"
I'm not sure what "Orwellian democracy" is, but whatever. What was striking was the basis for his objection. In layman's terms, the pay-go rule is basically a mechanism that forces any drain on the treasury to be offset by corresponding spending cuts. Pay-go was first instituted in 1990 and was followed diligently until the late 1990s, when budget surpluses replaced deficits and exceptions began to be made to accommodate deficit spending. Pay-go was allowed to formally lapse in 2002, when Republicans were forced to do away with it because the Bush tax cuts would have forced the Republican Congress, which ultimately increased spending to a massive degree, to make sweeping cuts. Pay-go, being as it was a mechanism that automatically enforced fiscal discipline, was an early casualty of the Bush era. It was almost revived in the Senate in 2006, but again, Republicans killed the effort.
Pay-go was reinstated this year in the House, not as law -- Democrats couldn't have passed it as law, because Bush would have vetoed it -- but as part of the House Rules package. This is somewhat difficult to explain, but basically the House (unlike the Senate) passes a new Rules package every year, and in that package can write in various procedures that are not subject to presidential veto. They did so this year with pay-go, which passed in a landslide, 280-154. Among those who voted against pay-go in the House Rules package, however, were Tom Price, the same dickhead bitching about living in an Orwellian state over spending for Katrina recovery.
Here's the deal with pay-go. It is designed to apply to permanent expenditures only -- traditionally, the programs that are usually called entitlements. That means Medicare, student loans, etc. Basically, pay-go was designed as a way to cap spending on welfare; if you want to raise expenditures for this entitlement, you have to make a corresponding cut somewhere else. It does not apply to emergency expenditures or what is called discretionary spending, i.e. spending that is made on a year-to-year basis, in response to temporary problems.
Republicans like Price can't vote for pay-go as a general principle because that would mean they would have to somehow pay for the Bush tax cuts. They also can't ask to expand pay-go to emergency expenditures as a general rule, because that would mean they would have to pay for the Iraq and Afghan wars, which are still being paid for almost entirely out of emergency appropriations -- despite the fact that they are no longer unanticipated emergencies in the traditional sense.
So what do they do? They're left to stamp their feet and cry Orwell when the Democrats pass a relatively small appropriation for housing for hurricane victims. In other words, there's no Tom Price to be found screaming for fiscal responsibility when a $90 billion Iraq appropriation is passed, but when $1.175 billion goes to the Gulf Coast, he and the likes of Diaz-Balart start singing "We Shall Overcome."
I'm no big fan of the Democratic party. I think they pussyfoot about key issues like the war and they whore for their campaign donors almost as much as the Republicans. And their ethics and procedural reform to date isn't something to write home about. Even Barney Frank conceded on the House floor: "[Diaz-Balart] is right about one thing. He chides us for setting the bar too low. We only promised to do better than they did, and we met that standard with ease. But we should do better."
But Jesus, at least they have some shame. The Republicans ran Congress like a basement cock-fighting ring for more than a decade, and two months or so after they're out of power, they're already transformed into a bunch of squawking dissidents more pretentious than Rage Against the Machine. And they know how absurd it is, too. When I called Diaz-Balart's office, and asked his press representative, Victoria Martinez, how her boss could possibly complain about a lack of open rules considering his record, there was a pause on the other end of the line.
"Uh huh," she said. "I'll get back to you."
Click. Should I hold my breath while I wait?
© 2007 Rolling Stone