Player of the Week: The Anonymous Army on Capitol Hill
Flip on C-SPAN late at night, and you may well see a lawmaker giving a lengthy and impassioned speech to a largely empty House chamber. But while the room may look deserted, off-camera and behind the scenes there are dozens of aides keeping the place running.
Congress works largely because an anonymous army of clerks, parliamentarians, doorkeepers, cops and even janitors toil away -- sometimes late at night, sometimes on weekends or holidays -- to make sure things go smoothly. Unfortunately, the only times those people do get public attention is when things don't go smoothly, as was the case this week on the $307 billion Farm Bill.
After the House and Senate originally passed the measure, they sent it over to the White House, where President Bush vetoed it. But the bill he vetoed wasn't actually the one passed by Congress, because somewhere along the way a House "enrolling clerk" dropped an entire section of the measure -- one dealing with international trade and food aid -- from the bill. The House and Senate went ahead and overrode Bush's veto anyway (even though he technically vetoed the wrong bill) as Republicans screamed bloody murder that the whole process was incompetent, an abuse of power and possibly unconstitutional.
This certainly isn't the first time a glitch or honest mistake has tied up the legislative process. There have been multiple entertaining examples just this decade:
May 2001. The march toward a late-night House vote on the budget conference report grinds to a halt when aides realize that two pages are missing from the bill. Democrats blame Republicans, and the House blames the Senate (since it was a Senate copy machine that apparently ate the pages). At one point, the always-witty Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) stops in the midst of a tirade on the House floor about "the missing pages" to say: "I do not mean the human pages, I mean the paper pages. I want to assure all parents that all pages are present and accounted for."
August 2005. Bush signs a massive highway bill, which includes earmark language for the "Coconut Road Interchange" in Florida. The language was different from that which was voted on by the House and Senate, raising the question of who changed the wording and why after congressional passage. Suspicion has fallen on Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), who has admitted that his staff made the change but denied that it had anything to do with the fact that the earmark would benefit a developer who made campaign contributions to him.
February 2006. Bush signs the Deficit Reduction Act, but it turns out the budget bill may not be kosher because the House and Senate passed different versions of the measure because a Senate clerk accidentally changed a number in the version that chamber voted on. Democrats demand an ethics investigation of the incident, and several different groups, including some House Democrats, file lawsuits arguing the bill is unconstitutional. The suits are eventually thrown out.
In the current case, Democrats feel confident that the Farm Bill snafu can be fixed and will survive any court challenges. And hopefully, the House enrolling clerks and other lesser-known aides who keep the trains running on time can go back to their usual, unsung work. As House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said Thursday on the floor, "Those who work for us are humans and are under great stress. They have to work around the clock. They work 15-hour days, sometimes longer days. And we expect them to act without ever making a mistake. That is unreasonable."
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