Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

No answers from Congress

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This is odd—no one wants to answer a simple question:

Hear that? That silence is the sound of my phone not ringing. It’s been a familiar quiet since I first started trying to get some answers about Rep. Don Young’s (R-AK) Coconut Road earmark last month.

Someone, apparently acting on Young’s behalf, managed to change the bill’s language in the massive 2005 transportation bill after it had passed both houses of Congress, but before the President signed it into law. The change no doubt gratified real estate developer Daniel Aronoff, who’d raised $40,000 for Young earlier that year in his push for $10 million to construct a highway interchange. Young’s language change steered that cash away from the community’s requested use and to Aronoff’s pet project.

So a few weeks ago, I decided to figure out how, in a very technical sense, a bill’s language can change after it passed both houses of Congress. Surely there must be a process to keep bills awaiting the President’s signature safe from tampering, or so I assumed.

But after being passed repeatedly from office to office, I’m still none the wiser as to how Young might have changed the bill’s language. It’s become crystal clear, however, that those who should know don’t have a ready answer — and don’t seem eager to find one.

I started with a call to the current House clerk in late August; I heard nothing. Then I tried the House clerk who was in place in 2005 when the rewording occurred. Jeff Trandahl, now the executive director of the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, was on a cruise two weeks ago. When he returned, his secretary called to let me know he is too busy to talk — too busy indefinitely, that is. I pressed, asking if that means he is saying no comment. “No, he is just too busy with an upcoming fundraiser.” (Classic Washington blow-off line!)

Undeterred, I went back to the current clerk’s office last week. I explained, again, what I was trying to find out and got an answer! I was told: call the Committee on House Administration and ask for its spokesman, Kyle Anderson. (Apparently other reporters are interested in the same question, so the two offices worked together to come up with a solution.) Anderson was sympathetic, but still passed me back to the House Parliamentarian’s Office.

I called over there, but had a hard time hearing the person who answered the phone. They were having a “luncheon,” that sounded like a wild party (as far as Parliamentarian Office parties go). I called back in an hour, heard loud laughter and cocktail party chatting and then a “click.” The third time was the charm. Max Spitzer, an assistant parliamentarian who didn’t seem to know what I was talking about, clacked away at a computer, asking me questions about the name of the bill and the date, etc. He looked through something and concluded: “There is nothing here that would indicate a language change.”

Well, there you go. The Coconut Road controversy is a figment of my imagination and Lee County, Florida’s too. But wait, Lee County, the area that received the funds just voted to send the money back to Congress last month, in hopes of having it reallocated for what they determined to be the original purpose. Lee County commissioned a study from a former government official to trace the earmark’s history, discovering that the language change must have occurred in the limbo period between passing Congress and waiting for the president’s signature.

And what about our unsuccessful efforts to find an earmark — any earmark — other than Young’s that had undergone a similar change in the bill? I offered to send the report on to Spitzer so he could see that in fact there was a change. He gave me his email address. The next day he said he sent it on to his superiors, who are certainly working on it.

Just in case that doesn’t work, I called back the House Committee on Administration to talk with Anderson again. He sounded, again, very understanding. He explained that it’s hard because it’s a different majority, with different people working in the various offices. He said he’d see about reaching out to the “other side of the aisle” for me.

Since I haven’t heard anything from Anderson, I just called the minority staff myself. I asked the spokeswoman there, Salley Collins, if Anderson spoke with her about this: “No, not at all.” Well, good thing I called. After I explained the situation, which surprised her, she offered to put in a request with the Congressional Research Service to look into the matter. Collins warned that CRS could take a while to get to it.

Written by Leisureguy

20 September 2007 at 7:43 pm

Posted in Congress, GOP, Government

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