In the 1970s, reformers successfully fought for rules to ensure that the making of the nation’s laws would be carried out in sessions open to the public, not behind closed doors of Congressional Committees.
The reforms were supposed to mean open hearings and open meetings to consider and vote amendments to bills as well as open conferences between House and Senate members to reconcile legislative differences between the two bodies.
But, at the end of each Congress, lawmakers toss out or modify many of the rules, go behind closed doors and cut deals in the middle of the night on mounds of legislation that has been delayed, mismanaged and neglected during the session.
Only a handful of the Congressional insiders make the deals. The remainder of the 535 members of the House and Senate are left to vote on final versions of these mammoth omnibus packages on short notice–usually without a chance for meaningful debate or opportunity for amendments that have thrown in at the last minute.
The process sharply limits the ability of citizens to hold their elected representatives accountable on individual items that should have been debated and voted on separately rather than hidden from public scrutiny in these eleventh hour packages. The end of the session negotiations are fertile ground for special interest provisions that would never have survived the sunshine of open debates and votes.
Two of these special deals appeared in drafts of banking legislation after negotiations which continued until 4 a.m. on the Friday before adjournment. These were provisions never considered by either Banking Committee.
One would have provided an exemption from Truth in Lending and other consumer laws for credit transactions conducted under “Rent to Own” contracts. Under these contracts, customers–many of them low income families–pay two to five times the actual retail value of television sets, furniture and other household items.
Another provision inserted behind the scenes would have given a special favor to Household Finance Corporation by exempting its savings and loan holdings from assessments for recapitalizing the Saving Associations Insurance Fund (SAIF). That apparently would have saved the corporation $20 million.
Thanks to a loud outcry from some alert Members, both of these items were deleted from the bill just hours before the banking legislation was crammed into an omnibus appropriations package which sailed through both Houses under expedited procedures.
Learning of the last minute deletion, a disappointed lobbyist for Household Finance lamented “Jim Leach [House Banking Chairman] told us it was in there.”
These were exceptions. Most of the special interest provisions don’t get deleted. In fact, many are not spotted by the media and the public interest groups until the legislation is passed and signed into law.
Even when closed door negotiations produce good results for the public interest, the processes (or lack of processes) in place in the final days of a Congress remain an open invitation for legislative mischief against the public interest. And it is an invitation that lobbyists never fail to accept.
Congress should stop these all-night circuses and backroom deals in the closing days of a session. Rules, adopted to protect the integrity of the legislative process, should be for all seasons and not circumvented or suspended in the final days when some of the most important legislation is invariably before the Congress.
Congress can get its job done on time in open sessions without resorting to procedures that shut out the public and make it easier for the lobbyists. There is no need to turn the House and Senate into a modern version of the “smoke-filled room” at the end of every session.