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Ari Berman: 'A democracy in name only'

By Ari Berman, The Nation

"The drama of the legislative process is never in the broad strokes," journalist Matt Taibbi writes, "but in the bloody skirmishes and power plays that happen behind the scenes." That is where the Republican leadership, bolstered by an army of lobbyists, sinks its teeth into the arm of democracy.

Taibbi exposes the spectacular corruption of the current Republican Congress in a shocking, maddening and revelatory report in this month's Rolling Stone magazine. Luckily, Taibbi has an expert tour guide: maverick Independent congressman and soon-to-be-Senator Bernie Sanders. Taibbi charts how over one month Sanders introduces four amendments, all of which pass floor votes by comfortable margins. None of them become law. "How Tom DeLay and his cronies subvert the popular will," could have been story's subhead.

Sanders' first two amendments target a controversial provision in the Patriot Act that allows the FBI to search libraries and bookstores without a warrant. The first amendment permanently outlaws such searches; the second denies the Justice Department the funds to conduct them. Sanders wins a vote on the latter by a margin of 238-187.

Unfortunately, the measure must clear the powerful House Rules Committee, the official gatekeeper of the legislative process. "If Rules votes against your amendment, your amendment dies," Taibbi writes. "If you control the Rules Committee, you control Congress." Nine Republicans and four Democrats sit on the Committee, which is chaired by DeLay ally David Dreier. The House leadership convinces Arizona 's Jeff Flake, previously one of the Patriot Act's harshest Republican critics, to sponsor an amendment requiring the FBI director to sign off on library searches, effectively subverting Sanders. Flake's amendment, along with the rest of the draconian Patriot Act, easily passes Congress. Only twenty of the sixty-three amendments passed survive the Rules Committee. Members aren't even given enough time to read the new legislation before they vote.



The third amendment seeks to block the government's Export-Import Bank from giving the British energy company Westinghouse $5 billion to build four nuclear power plants in China as part of the Foreign Operations budget. Lobbyists from Westinghouse and Ex-Im hastily lobby Congress, even though "technically speaking, government agencies aren't allowed to lobby," a Sanders staffer says. The amendment passes 313-114. As a testament to Sanders' legislative know-how and coalition building, Oklahoma right-winger Tom Coburn agrees to sponsor a similar bill in the Senate. But Bush threatens to veto the entire Foreign Op bill, and the Senate resoundingly defeats Coburn's amendment 62-37.

The fourth Sanders amendment would cancel a $1.9 billion contract the Federal Aviations Administration awarded defense contractor Lockheed Martin to privatize regional Flight Service Stations. The House easily approves the amendment, by a 238-177 vote. Yet Sanders cannot find a Senate sponsor. Lockheed Martin spent $2.1 million on political contributions last year, more than any other defense contractor. Two-thirds went to Republicans. Their return on investment certainly beats Sanders'. Bush has once again threatened a veto if the Sanders amendment is attached to the Transportation budget.

"Nobody knows how this place is run," Sanders tells Taibbi. "If they did, they'd go nuts."

Copyright 2005 The Nation

Reprinted from The Nation:
http://www.thenation.com/blogs/outrage?bid=13&pid=12899