Congress Sinks the Boat Unless We Rock the Boat

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It’s a time-honored method for getting legislation done in the middle of a gridlock to attach an unrelated “rider” to a bill understood as “must pass.” I write this at three o’clock on the morning it is claimed the U.S. government will be rolling down Capitol Hill to a shutdown again unless our gridlocked Congress passes some sort of spending bill. Nobody is crazy enough to expect a budget, but conventional wisdom is that some “continuing resolution” will get to President Obama’s desk that funds the government for less that a year, at least until a more Republican Congress takes office next month.

Why would that be controversial at all, given the number of times Congress has taken taxpayer money out on the mall and lit it on fire by shutting the government down? All the polling data, which ought to count for something, tell us the taxpayers are tired of having a pile of their money burned for no good reason.

Still, the Tea Party caucus in the House is spoiling for another government shutdown, unless they can get something for keeping the lights on like a withdrawal of the Executive Orders on immigration or a repeal of Obamacare. Speaker John Boehner appears ready to pass the budget resolution the old fashioned way, by putting it on the floor for a vote and counting the votes, Republican and Democrat.

If Boehner would do that with everything—immigration reform being the most obvious, because there’s a pending bill---there would be no gridlock, but he refuses to put anything on the floor unless is passes a majority of the Republican caucus and the Tea Party is numerous enough to prevent a majority of the Republican caucus from moving on much of anything.

No problem when it comes to shutting down the government, right? Failing to pass a spending bill has terrible consequences. That is a “must pass.”

Indians have had eyes on a rider to another “must pass,” the defense bill, which contains a provision to open Apache sacred sites to a copper mine for Rio Tinto, a British-Australian transnational corporation last in the news for cutting a deal that gave Iran a part interest in a uranium mine in defiance of efforts to block Iran’s access to the parts for an atomic weapon.

What has become known in some circles as the “Apache Leap Giveaway” is a truly odious example of slapping an awful rider on a “must pass” bill.

Comes now a bill to keep the lights on for the U.S. government, which is about as “must pass” as legislation gets. Yesterday, the penultimate day for budgetary reckoning, Speaker Boehner announced a “compromise” he is willing to bring to the floor without Tea Party blessings.

Sure, there’s some unfortunate stuff riding that “must pass” legislation.

There's a law to block the District of Columbia’s legalization of marijuana, which passed a referendum by 70 percent of the vote.

There’s an amendment to the School Lunch Program that would loosen the requirements that poor kids be served the kinds of healthy foods wealthy kids have always gotten.

There’s an amendment to what is left of campaign finance regulations raising the amount an individual can contribute to party campaign committees from $32,400 to $324,000.

Oil and gas interests got a rider to keep two birds off the endangered species list, which is supposed to be driven by science rather than by politics.

But the worstest of the worstest is a provision that guts the Dodd-Frank law’s attempts to stop another economic meltdown caused by the high stakes gambling of investment banks.

Dodd-Frank required that gambling with derivative instruments of the kind that blew up the economy be undertaken in a separate entity from the commercial operations that are insured by the government.

The pending rider, drafted by a lobbyist for Citigroup, would end the prohibition of high stakes gambling by federally insured banks. This means that the gamblers get to keep their profits but if losses get out of hand, they will be covered by public funds because the few investment banks involved are “too big to fail.”

Ordinary deposit insurance does not use taxpayer money. It is funded by assessments on the insured banks. But the sums of money at stake in leveraged derivatives far exceed anything that could be covered without tapping the public till---just like last time.

The Tea Party claimed to think the TARP program—the last public bailout of investment bank gamblers—was a bad idea. If the Tea Party were to stand on the idea that bailouts are bad, and the Democrats would stand with them on the ground that capitalism for the gains and socialism for the losses is bad, this rider could be beaten even if it is attached to a “must pass” bill.

Would that not shut down the government?

Not if Speaker Boehner were to strip the suicide pact with investment banks out of the bill and put something out that just carries the other obnoxious provisions. Understanding a clean spending bill is too much to expect, this bomb will be defused only if there is an unlikely surge of negative opinion from a public not even aware of the tactic of putting riders on “must pass” bills.

Following these awful riders on the “must pass” spending bill is the awful rider on the “must pass” defense bill to force open Apache sacred sites to the pollution and the defaced land that is modern copper mining.

If this is the best government can do, maybe shutting it down is not such a terrible plan.

Steve Russell, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is a Texas trial court judge by assignment and associate professor emeritus of criminal justice at Indiana University-Bloomington. He lives in Georgetown, Texas.