Monday, August 19, 2002

A Modest Proposal For Congressional Reform

Lately, I've been thinking a lot about government pork, and how it insinuates itself into the legislative agenda. Usually, it is added in backroom deals or as 'earmarks' added in committee. And often, it is tucked inside unrelated bills as the result of congressional wheeling and dealing for votes (i.e. bribery). It goes something like this:

The Scene: John McCain's office. John is on the phone trying to wrassle votes for his new bill that will force politicians to raise funds by collecting bottles along the side of the road. But wouldn't you know it, he's a couple of votes short of what he needs. So, he makes a phone call...

McCain: Hi there, Senator Bob. Look, I'm trying to push through my new campaign finance reform-slash-recycling bill, and I'm short a vote. How about it? Can I count on you?
Senator Bob: I'm sorry, John. I can't hear you. There's too much noise from all the people phoning me from home demanding that new facility to store sheep entrails.
McCain: I said, DO I HAVE YOUR VOTE?
Senator Bob: I still can't hear you, but a few million dollars to silence the noise of all those voters would sure clear up the matter.
McCain: Okay, let's put a rider on my bill. 2 million dollars for sheep entrail storage. Then will you vote for it?
Senator Bob: It's still too noisy in here! Did you say FOUR million dollars?
McCain: Okay, okay. Four million bucks for sheep entrails. Do I have your vote?
Senator Bob: Oh, it's quieter in here now. Did you say vote? Oh, you mean for your new recyling/funding/sheep entrail bill? Of course, you have my vote for that!
McCain: Thank you.

And so, a new bill is born, promising more honest government, cleaner roadways, and 4 million bucks for sheep entrails. And then guys like me wonder, "What the hell do sheep entrails have to do with campaign finance reform?"

Only government can get away with nonsense like this. Believe me, if I walked into a project meeting with a funding request for new development software, a couple of programmers, and oh yeah, a large green parrot, I guarantee you my boss would say, "Uh, what's with the parrot, Dan?" And I'd have some explaining to do. And I can tell you, that parrot had better be a hell of a programmer, or I'm not getting him.

So here's the proposal: From now on, every funding request that gets proposed for a bill MUST come with a 500 word essay explaining just how this funding relates to the bill in question. This becomes part of the public record. This would serve several valuable purposes, the most important of which is that it would provide me with endless amounts of comedic material. The tortured logic justifying the inclusion of funds for the perverted arts in a road construction bill would be a more fun to read than Angelina Jolie's psych evaluation. But also, it would force the exposure of the kind of dealing that goes on in Washington.

While we're dreaming, let's think about punishment. I think an evaluation board should be made up of crotchety old 8th grade teachers. Before a rider can be attached to a bill, the teachers will read the essay and decide if the logic makes any sense at all. If not, the politician responsible must appear before them and have his knuckles rapped with a yardstick. And, he gets a black mark in The Book. The Big Book of Congressional Idiocy. Get three marks, and the old ladies show up in congress, grab the lout by the ear, and march him out of the building. Then he gets sent home to his state with a report card saying, "Does not legislate well with others," and the voters have to pick someone else.

Don't get me wrong - I'm a big fan of both sheep entrails and perversion. In a totally non-related fashion, of course. But hey, if you want funding for the perverted arts, you can damned well sponsor a bill called the "Perverted Arts Funding Bill of 2002". At least then everything's out in the open, so to speak. Or, you can wait until the next bill comes along that actually involves funding for the arts before you tack on your perverted rider.*

Of course, none of this will ever come to pass, because pork is the internal currency of government. Take it away, and those poor politicians would actually have to deal with pieces of legislation on their merits, and not as commodities to be hustled and traded. But I can dream, can't I?

* 'Perverted Rider' would be a good name for a band.

Sunday, August 18, 2002

Here, Piggy Piggy Piggy...

One of my favorite scenes on "The Simpsons" is from the episode where an asteroid is about to smash Springfield into rubble. The U.S. government leaps into action, and a vote in Congress is taken to fund the evacuation:

Congressman #1: "Then it is unanimous. We are going to approve the bill to evacuate the town of Springfield in the great state of....
Congressman #2: Wait a second, I want to tack on a rider to that bill. Thirty million dollars of taxpayer money to support the perverted arts."
Congressman #1: "All in favor of the amended Springfield-slash-Pervert bill?" (Everyone boos)
CONGRESSMAN #1: "Bill defeated."

Now, clearly this is totally unrealistic. It is, after all, a cartoon. In real life the bill would have passed, Springfield would have been saved, and there would be a lot of subsidized perverts running around.

Nevertheless, I've been thinking about this episode a lot as I've been reading about the rapidly bloating U.S. budget. It seems that the more important the bill, the more temptation there is to load it up with pork. Give the bill a name like the "Patriot Act", and you've got a winner. After all, who wants to oppose a Patriot Act? What are you, unpatriotic?

I suggest that Congress write a bill called the "Keeping Americans From Being Ripped Apart By Wild Dogs Act of 2002 (supplemental)". With a name like that, you could load the bill up with funding to pave the halls of Congress in gold and still get the votes for it.

Consider the FY 2002 Supplemental spending bill to enhance Homeland Security. This bill authorized emergency funding for homeland security. Such an important bill would surely be free from pork, right? Well, let's go through some of the items in the bill, and see just how they help to enhance homeland security.

Among the spending authorizations in the bill:

Require Agriculture Department to fund report of Dog Dealers Task Force as it relates to violations of puppy breeding.

I can't argue against this one. The risk to the commonweal is great. If terrorists get their hands on puppy breeding facilities, soon we'll have hordes of radical muslim puppies wearing little tiny explosive collars, insinuating themselves into American life. One night you'll be watching TV, snuggling with your little dog, and BAM! Lassie Akhbar!

$2,000,000. - Research related to mad cow disease.

Absolutely necessary. If it were not for the good work of the Congress, all of us could be faced with the prospect of millions of angry, diseased cows in our midst. The perfect breeding ground for bovine terrorists. Al Qaida would recruit them in a second. Especially if cows had guns. And opposable thumbs.

$3,000,000. - Cattle genome sequencing.

Apparently, the plan is to make a new strain of genetically-engineered uber cow, trained to patrol the borders. Perhaps the front lines of our bovine defensive brigades could be made up of the angry diseased cows that don't have much to live for anyway: "Halt you bastard, or I'll...I'll...MOO!"

$50,000,000. -Construction of the National Animal Disease Laboratory, Ames, Iowa.
$19,022,000. - Animal health surveillance.
$21,550,000. - Pest detection activities.

If we are going to enlist bovines in the defense of the homeland, we should treat them well. No amount of money is too much to spend in support of the nation's fighting cows.

Re-deploy departmental funds to sustain the Senior Farmers' Market Nutrition Program which encourages seniors to purchase fresh produce.

By giving money to seniors and farmers at the same time, the need for this funding should be obvious to all. Especially if you're trying to get elected this year.

$11,000,000. - Economic assistance for the New England fishing industry.

Because without a healthy New England fishing industry, we'd have to pay more for fish. And if we pay more for fish, we'll eat less fish. That will lead to a loss of dietary iron, which will... Oh the hell with it. You figure it out.

$700,000. - Biomass project at Winona, Mississippi.

Unless the biomass in question consists of the dead bodies of Al Qaida terrorists, it is hard at first to see the justification for this. Until you realize that this project would benefit farmers, in which case the necessity is clear.

$34,000,000. - United Nations Population Fund.

Because what could be more important to have in an emergency spending bill for homeland defense than funding for family planning initiatives?

$765,000. - Security needs at the Clark R. Bavin National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory.

I have often said that Fish and Wildlife forensics laboratories were dangerously unsecured. Are we going to sit by and wait until Al Qaida raids one of these labs and collects huge quantities of formaldehyde and fish entrails? Think of the horror of a bomb inside a one-ton container of fish guts. It would be like, totally gross.

$2,000,000. - Initiate the planning and design of an alcohol collection storage facility located in Suitland, Maryland for The Smithsonian's collections of preserved animal species.

This, coupled with the increased security to the Clark R. Bavin National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory, should be seen as a clue that the government knows something. Apparently, Al Qaida is planning an attack on the nation's strategic stockpile of pickled and preserved old things. If this is the case, I suggest we also increase security around Bea Arthur and Joan Rivers.

$43,000,000. - Grants to AMTRAK. $20,000,000 to repair damaged passenger equipment, and $23,000,000 for the heavy overhaul of the rail passenger fleet.

Amtrak is clearly a strategic weapon in the fight against terror. If we can get the terrorists to ride Amtrak to their destination, they'll arrive too late and exhausted to do anything. If they don't kill themselves on the train out of frustration, that is.

We should consider using the airlines in the same way. Consider this potential exchange:

Terrorist #1: "Are you ready to strike fear into the hearts of the dung-eating Americans, Rashid?"
Terrorist #2: "Alas, I cannot. For I packed my explosive belt in my luggage, and the unholy pig-infested airlines have shipped it to Podunk. The luggage I received contains a poodle skirt and a form of hat with tiny vegetables on it."
Terrorist #1: "Those clever Americans have been reading Sun Tzu again, using their weaknesses as strength!"
Terrorist #2: "No, I think the airlines just suck."

$2,000,000. - Customs Service to monitor and investigate the importation in the U.S. products made with forced labor.

Yeah, at a time when we're worried about nuclear weapons being smuggled into the country, the emergency anti-terror bill MUST divert plenty of resources to the important task of keeping cheap running shoes out of the country.

$750,000. - Clarify previously appropriated funds to the Smart Start Child Care Center and Expertise School at Las Vegas, Nevada.

A brigate of smart pre-schoolers could be just what we need in the war against terror. Put them on our genetically engineered fighting cows, and you've got a force to be reckoned with.

Well, I realize that I have only covered about half of the pork in this bill, and this post is already way too long. So we'll have to leave it at that for now.

What have we learned from this? Several things:

  1. It is a lucky coincidence that the most critical funding needs for homeland security just happen to be in home states of the members of the appropriations committee.

  2. We have learned that farmers and old people are critical to homeland security. Of course, given the voting clout of these groups, one suspects that if a bill were passed to provide flood relief for Tanzania we would discover that farmers and old people were critical to the success of that effort.

  3. Cows and puppies are dangerous, and need to be regulated.

  4. If you're an old lady at a Carmen Miranda festival, and find a strange looking belt in your luggage, for God's sake don't put it on your head.