House of Games

The short autumn session of the 108th Congress that began the first week of September came to a close this past weekend as members started shuttling home to campaign for November's elections. But what a month it's been!

Returning to the Capitol on September 7, shortly after the stirring festivities of the Republican National Convention, the GOP leaders in the House of Representatives knew they faced an overstuffed plate of legislation requiring urgent attention. The House and Senate had yet to vote on conference reports for 12 of the 13 appropriations bills for fiscal year 2005. A giant highway bill, long in the making, still needed to be reconciled with the wishes of the Senate and the White House. Most importantly, the 9-11 Commission's report, released in July, put intelligence reform at the top of the legislative agenda. Both parties confirmed that a fundamental revamping of the intelligence system was the single most urgent legislative priority, to be completed before Congress went out of session in October.

There was much to do. It was time to get to work.

Week 1. Intelligence reform was priority number one ... but the House Republican leadership first needed some time to confer with committees and devise a bill to submit to the floor. So while the intelligence reform bill was being hashed out behind closed doors, the House took up another pressing national-security concern: the glaring hype deficit that was crippling our efforts in the war on terror.

Even after a four-day greatest hits parade in New York City chronicling our president's stewardship of that war over the past three years, it seemed the country still sorely needed an official, congressionally sanctioned pep talk about the president's struggles against the terrorists, nicely timed for the third anniversary of that sorrowful September morning. (More to the point, The Hill reported, Majority Leader Tom DeLay and his allies wanted to build off the momentum the Republicans had garnered at their convention the week before.)

And thus was born House Resolution 757, introduced September 8 and passed the next day, a smorgasbord of commendations of George W. Bush's proactive leadership in a time of uncertainty. To be sure, Democrats carped over some of the language. (They were particularly grumpy about the section describing the United States leadership “of an international military coalition in the destruction of two terrorist regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq.”) But the GOP leadership wouldn't allow amendments to be considered, so all but a handful of lawmakers felt compelled to vote for the resolution. Score one for America in its rhetorical fight against terrorists.

Week 2. Intelligence reform, without doubt, remained priority number one ... but since Speaker Dennis Hastert and his staff were still hard at work devising the House's reform bill, other urgent matters presented themselves. Even if terrorists, for the moment, might still be able to elude our best intelligence capabilities and strike us on our own soil, Congress could at least work to protect the country from fellow citizens who, in the words of Texas Representative Lamar Smith, “sue a theme park because its haunted houses are too scary” or “sue McDonald's claiming a hot pickle dropped from a hamburger caused a burn and mental injury." That is to say, Americans could be protected from the scourge of frivolous lawsuits. So on September 14, on a roughly party-line vote, the House passed Smith's “Lawsuit Abuse Reduction Act,” which threatened trial lawyers with sanctions for filing baseless claims. Score one for America in its battle against pickle-singed whiners and their hired-gun trial lawyers.

Week 3. Still, though, intelligence reform remained priority number one ... and the House would be sure to take it up just as soon as the GOP leadership finished forcing floor votes on some wedge issues they wanted to utilize for November's elections. First on the docket was Missouri Representative Todd Akin's Pledge Protection Act, which sought to strip all federal courts (including the Supreme Court) of jurisdiction over cases involving the “under God” language in the pledge of allegiance. Granted, legal experts were nearly unanimous in questioning the bill's constitutionality and even its own internal logic. (Representative Barney Frank of Massachusetts remarked on the House floor that “even by the standards that have governed the House recently, the bill before us is bizarre.”) And no one disputed the fact that such a bill's chances of passing in the Senate were nil.

But, as The Hill would later report, the September 23 vote provided the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) with some helpful ammo in its bid to expand the GOP's House majority in November. Ten vulnerable Democratic incumbents who voted against the measure on constitutional grounds were targeted for coordinated attack. Score one for America in its struggle against activist, pledge-hating jurists and their Democratic enablers in the House.

Week 4. As time began to run out on the abbreviated congressional session, intelligence reform remained priority number one in the House ... but first things first: Some more election-eve wedge issues required prompt action. On September 29 the House submitted to a floor vote Indiana Representative Mark Souder's bill to eliminate gun-control laws in the District of Columbia, thereby legalizing semiautomatic weapons and armor-piercing ammo. This too served as a nice, hot-button, election-eve vote (it stood no chance of ever passing the Senate) -- though, to be fair, there may have been a serious component to the Republicans' thinking as well: Representatives most likely surmised that if the United States' dysfunctional intelligence system were to continue to leave the country vulnerable to the incursion of terrorists, legislators should at least have the ability to defend themselves. Score one for Americans expecting the war on terrorism to involve a rugged street fight.

A day later, the House took up this year's wedge issue par excellence, a constitutional ban on gay marriage. This vote had the benefit of not even bearing a pretense of practical import, as the Senate had already voted down the measure in July. No matter. The House would have its debate and its members would be forced to take a public stand on this most urgent of purely symbolic issues. Score one for America in its symbolic struggle against activist judges bent on destroying marriage.

Week 5. After a month of distraction, intelligence reform most definitely remained priority number one in the House of Representatives … and so, finally, last week the House rushed through the process to get it done. Dennis Hastert's bill, sent through committee markups over the week and put to a floor vote on October 8, had shocked even the most cynical congressional observers with its dilution of key 9-11 Commission recommendations (including full budget authority for the new national intelligence director) and its inclusion of dozens of seemingly gratuitous immigration and law-enforcement provisions (including a measure, eventually stripped out of the bill, allowing Homeland Security officials to deport suspected terrorists to countries with lax torture laws). Analysts split in guessing whether some of these provisions represented the sincere desires of the House leadership or were actually meant as “poison pills” to force Democrats to vote against the bill on the eve of the elections.

At any rate, according to a detailed report issued jointly by the offices of Representatives Henry Waxman and Steny Hoyer, the House intelligence bill that passed on Friday fails to fully implement 30 of the 9-11 Commission's 41 recommendations while including 50 extraneous measures. There are stark differences between it and the Senate's intelligence reform proposal, making the coming negotiations in conference ripe for political chicanery and a replay of the election-eve showdown over the Homeland Security bill two years ago. Ruminations among the House leadership about forcing a vote on a conference bill as early as November 1 only further such suspicions.

And thus concluded the storied autumn House session of the 108th Congress. All told, nine of the 13 appropriations bill have yet to be passed, major legislation like the highway bill has stalled, and intelligence reform has been deliberately set by the House leadership (likely with the tacit collusion of the White House) on a collision course in conference that could pay political dividends for Republicans even as it stalls actual progress on overhauling the intelligence system.

Carpers might surmise that our congressional leaders aren't serious about carrying out the nation's business. But, in fact, this is how the House Republicans have always operated, so it is left to us to thank them for providing steady leadership in times of change. If the process had been carried out any differently, you see, it would only have showed that the terrorists our intelligence structures continue to be ill-prepared to thwart had already won.

Sam Rosenfeld is a Prospect Web writer.