Thursday, August 11, 2005

"An evil, adult version of schoolhouse rock"
Matt Taibbi is a politics reporter for Rolling Stone. I caught him on the Daily Show a few weeks ago, and he's a funny, intelligent young person, forced to cover the John Kerry campaign in '04, which he apparently did on one day in a gorilla suit just to quell the monotony. And although he disappointed Kevin Drum (and me) with the article that promised to blow the lid off of the Ohio shenanigans in the Presidential election, Taibbi is generally compelling. A fabulous example is his new story on the inner workings of congress from the perspective of one of the most successful amendment-passers in the House of Representatives, none other than Bernie Sanders, independent from Vermont. Taibbi followed Sanders around, wanting to lay out the real bill-making process in today's Washington.

It is a sensational read, confirming every bad thing you have ever imagined about our elected officials, and then some. Both a primer and a horror show, he describes a meeting of the all-powerful Rules Committee, "perhaps the free world's outstanding bureaucratic abomination -- a tiny, airless closet deep in the labyrinth of the Capitol where some of the very meanest people on earth spend their days cleaning democracy like a fish."
The Democrats generally occupy a four-seat row on the far left end of the panel table, and during hearings they tend to sit there in mute, impotent rage, looking like the unhappiest four heads of lettuce to ever come out of the ground. The one thing they are allowed to do is argue. Sensenbrenner gives them just such an opportunity, and soon he and McGovern fall into a row about gag orders.

In the middle of the exchange, Sanders gets up and, looking like a film lover leaving in the middle of a bad movie, motions for me to join him in the hallway. He gestures at the committee room. "It's cramped, it's uncomfortable, there isn't enough room for the public or press," he says. "That's intentional. If they wanted people to see this, they'd pick a better hall."

Sanders then asks me if I noticed anything unusual about the squabbling between Sensenbrenner and McGovern. "Think about it," he says, checking his watch. "How hard is it to say, 'Mr. Sanders, be here at 4:30 p.m.'? Answer: not hard at all. You see, a lot of the things we do around here are structured. On the floor, in other committees, it's like that. But in the Rules Committee, they just go on forever. You see what I'm getting at?"

I shrug.

"It has the effect of discouraging people from offering amendments," he says. "Members know that they're going to have to sit for a long time. Eventually they have to choose between coming here and conducting other business. And a lot of them choose other business . . . That's what that show in there was about."
At this point (this point being 15 years removed from the 21-year-old version of my idealism), there's no reason to be shocked. Still, I'm struck by how little, ultimately, it matters whether a majority in Congress supports your initiatives or not. In a representative government, you would think that's the goal, but it's really just one small step somewhere in the middle of the process.

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