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From Machiavelli to Harry Reid? The Important Piece of the "Sandy Relief Bill" that We're Missing

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Instead of the calm settling of dust we hoped would follow the “fiscal we’re-bad-at-our-jobs” debate in Congress, a new firestorm about an actual superstorm has emerged.
The coverage from the center to the left goes like this: “The Senate passed a Hurricane Sandy Relief bill that the GOP heartlessly refused to bring up for a vote. Now, let’s talk about the unavoidable civil war within the Republican Party!”
Pundits on the right are screaming about pork, and disparaging some of the most rational parts of the bill as vast leftwing greenie conspiracies – forest restoration projects, watershed assessments, and climate change research. Because it would be absurd to restore coastal forest areas that absorb storm surge, protect fragile watersheds, and study a natural disaster like the Superstorm Hurricane Sandy as it relates to climate change. How outrageous!
From each end of the political spectrum, and everywhere in between, the media are doing their jobs about as well as the elected officials they cover. And they’re leaving a whole lot of really important stuff out.
The Senate’s hurricane relief bill is called House Resolution 1. So, for starters, the Senate bill  actually was a House bill before it became a Senate bill. Congress passed it on February 19 of 2011. Which, given the beltway’s tendency to wait until the last minute, was downright prophetic, given that Hurricane Sandy wouldn’t make landfall for another twenty months. The bill just passed by the Senate is also a very different beast than the one passed by the larger chamber.
H.R. 1 was originally an appropriations bill. Not just for hurricanes; for everything. It’s full title, as introduced in the House, was “Making appropriations for the Department of Defense and the other departments and agencies of the Government for the fiscal year ending September 30, 2011, and for other purposes.”
Somewhere between its passage in 2011 to it’s motion to proceed to consideration in the Senate on December 13th of this year, H.R. 1 became the “Hurricane Sandy supplemental appropriations bill.”
Magic!
The Senate passed it on Friday the 28th, and House Speaker John Boehner gaveled out, closing the 112th Congress without taking up the bill. He postponed it until later this month, when the 113th Congress could take it up. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was outraged. New York Representative Peter King has threatened leaving the Republican party. Representative Gregory Meeks and Senator Chuck Schumer have been making the rounds on CNN and MSNBC.
And this is the only angle of the story we are presented as media consumers, because accusing the Speaker of hating hurricane victims means ratings. We get only a partisan overview, largely fielded by reporters who are being guided by press releases.
An important question is being neglected.
The Senate chose, as the vehicle to enact relief efforts, an appropriations bill that they had otherwise left to die. It was left to die because, like much of the work of the 112th Congress, it was flawed, uncompromisingly partisan, corrupt around the edges, and built to fail when it comes to passing bipartisan muster. Pages of defunding Planned Parenthood and Obamacare, a thorough gutting of EPA protections, and a full pork buffet.
Appropriations bills, however, are designed to appropriate. In other words, they exist to allocate money. Spending money, amazingly, is something that the Senate cannot do alone. Budgets have to come from the House. The upper chamber needed a car to drive but did not have the keys. So they hot-wired it through the House’s legislation in hilariously ridiculous fashion.
The House-passed version of H.R. 1 was a 384 page budget for the entirety of government, split into four subcategories: Defense, run of the mill expenditures, “stimulus rescissions”, and miscellaneous (the pork barrel containment facility).
Your average bill starts out with an enacting clause. It’s the official: “Be it resolved,” at the top of page 1 that lists the date that the law goes into effect.
The Senate took the bill and amended it to say, right up front after the enacting clause: “Strike all after the enacting clause, and insert in lieu thereof:” And then proceeded on with a brand spanking new budget bill, aimed (kind of) at disaster relief, but looking more like a targeted, regional mini-budget, with really necessary disaster relief attached as a component and given top billing.
In the 2011 bill, for instance, NASA “construction and environmental compliance” funds were appropriated to the tune of $408 million. In the new bill, they’ve been reduced to $15 million and now target “facilities damaged by Hurricane Sandy.” Maryland Democratic Senator Mikulski lobbied for the funding on the floor citing damage to the Wallops facility.
In the 2011 bill, Head Start education was afforded a block grant of six billion dollars. Under the Senate version, Head Start gets one hundred million to be divvied up between “States for which the President declared a major disaster… as a result of Hurricane Sandy.”
In the 2011, National Railroad Passenger Corporation (AMTRAK) was awarded $850 million in capital and debt service grants. In the new bill, they are awarded $336 million in grants “for costs and losses incurred as a result of Hurricane Sandy”.
Recognize a pattern? It goes on. For a hundred pages.
The Senate found a way to pass a budget full of things that they feel obligated by their constituents to come through on; the things they were elected to get done. Provide education and transportation and infrastructure. But, unable to get anything through the House without a catalog-of-crazy attached, the Senate passed a regional bill, and were provided cover by the immediate needs of communities affected by the storm. Surely the House wouldn’t object, because no one wants to be in the papers under a headline reading “Congressman hates hurricane victims.” And the stuff in the bill that doesn’t directly relate to the relief effort still is mostly really good stuff that Congress should be passing.
So put a “for disaster relief” stamp on it!
With the partisan inability to reach across the aisle and compromise increasing, moves like this become defensible by those that make them as necessary; as a political reality. Congressional prerogative. Maybe this is a natural evolution of the legislative branch in response to intransigence in the House. Things can’t not work as badly as they are not working right now without someone, at some point, figuring out a way to change whatever is keeping them from getting their work done. The one problem which might – and probably should – keep Senators awake at night is that political expediency isn’t permitted by the Constitution to trump the democratic process, no matter how broken that process is.
The questions surrounding the limitations on presidential powers as they relate to the Constitution – questions labored over by Jefferson, Lincoln, Bush 43, Obama, and all between – are not analogous to the powers of Congress. By that measure, the framers were adequately specific. And this is definitely coloring outside the box.
Machiavelli would be impressed. We should be concerned. And we should be talking about it.

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