Democracy for Sale

As the 105th Congress drew to a close in October, those who tried to follow its deliberations might well have been mystified. Major legislation aimed at serving the public good—campaign finance reform, a “Patients’ Bill of Rights” to protect enrollees of health-maintenance organizations, restrictions aimed against cigarette manufacturers—had vanished, without even a vote on the merits, into the congressional labyrinths. Curiously, each of these measures had bipartisan majority support in both houses, even though there might have been differences on details. All of them had been debated on the floor or in committee. They had been subjected to hearings, commented upon in editorials, tested in polls, and found acceptable to a majority of our citizens. All of them died.

In their place, from out of the same congressional labyrinths, came a hodgepodge of special-interest legislation that had never been debated or even subjected to public scrutiny. There were loans for mohair producers, essential, we were once told, lest the brave men and women who take up arms to defend this country go to war in uniforms devoid of mohair. There was additional relief for farmers, suffering this year from the unexpected problem of good weather, which has produced bumper harvests and thus low prices. There were six helicopters for the Colombian police, some mysterious subsidies for frozen chickens to be sold in Russia, a $1 billion break for the Tennessee Valley Authority (didn’t the Republicans want to kill that supposed example of state socialism?). And there was an extra $1 billion for development of a missile defense system, a program that remains an exception to the conservative conviction that government cannot solve problems by throwing money at them.

Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican who led the failed battles to pass the tobacco and campaign finance legislation, proclaimed this Congress the worst he had seen in his sixteen years of service in both houses. What makes it the worst is the combination of secret action, defiant inaction, and the huge growth of special-interest campaign contributions.

Self-serving legislation secretly arrived at is, of course, even older than our republic. In his An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States, Charles A. Beard suggested that the very framers of the Constitution were seeking a strong federal government to secure the investments they had made on the frontier, especially to defend land bought on the cheap from Revolutionary War veterans. Over the centuries, pork-barrel spending has handily survived public outrage, promises of reform, criminal prosecution, boxcars full of newspaper editorials, and even the devastating burlesque of Kentucky’s Representative James Proctor Knott. On January 17, 1871, he took to the House floor and told his colleagues that he had no doubt that building a railroad at public expense to “that terrestrial paradise, fanned by the balmy zephyrs of an eternal spring, clothed in the sheen of ever-blooming flowers” around Duluth, Minnesota, would be “essential to the happiness and prosperity of the American people, if not absolutely indispensable to …

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