Monday, December 08, 2003

WHAT I'M READING: Dastardly Republicans


I don't use the word messianic lightly, and I wouldn't use it to describe Al Franken's latest opus, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right. I will say that Franken, with the help of a dozen research assistants and a remarkable wry wit, has written a masterful dissection of the "vast right-wing conspiracy"--which, by Franken's measure, combines shameless, avaricious and evil geniuses with a confedarcy of dunces.

It's hard to decide which incidence of right-wing forked-tongue malfeasance described by Franken is most offensive to my American values of common decency and fair play, but I'll try. Franken on the 2002 Minnesota Wellstone-Coleman Senatorial campaign (I'm sure Al Franken won't mind me quoting part of his book here, hope the good people at Penguin Publishing are as understanding--from p. 179-80 of Lies, book excerpt in my italics):

The Wellstone-Coleman campaign had been considered one of the most negative in recent memory...But mainly it was Coleman's proxies who played it dirty. The National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) ran an ad called "Pork" that hit the hypocrisy jackpot. It savaged Wellstone for voting "to spend thousands of dollars to control seaweed in Maui," claiming that he prioritized seaweed control over national defense. In fact, Wellston did vote for S.1216, as did Strom Thurmond, Trent Lott, and eighty-four other senators. That bill did appropriate the seaweed control spending--but it also provided $21 billion for veterans' health care, $27 billion for veterans' compensation and pensions, and block grants to assist NYC's recovery from 9/11. The NSRC was chaired that year by Bill Frist, who later replaced Trent Lott as Senate majority leader. Before the [Wellstone] memorial, Frist spoke with the Wellstones' older son, David, who later recounted the conversation to me.

"I'm sorry about your parents and your sister," Frist told David.

"Did you authorize the seaweed ad against my dad?"

"Yes."

"And did you vote for the seaweed bill?"

There was a pause. They both knew that the answer was yes. Finally, Frist said, "It wasn't personal."

"My dad took it personal. Thanks for coming to my family's memorial"

...And so on for about 350 pages. Not to be outdone by Franken's research team, I wanted to check the facts before I posted. So I went to Thomas, the online repository of the Congressional record hosted at the Library of Congress. It's really slow because it contains millions of pages of documents, so be patient.

Following the historical track of legislation is tricky even for seasoned researchers-- Navigating the absurdities of parliamentary procedures, the renaming, renumbering, tabling, conferencing and sending to committee of bills, etc. Conferences occur when the House and the Senate version of a bill are in discord. A bicameral group of legislators get together to reconcile the two bills. This is where a lot of horse trading takes place away from public view. Legislative items that have nothing to do with the disputed bill are tacked on and core components of the bill are stripped out. Sometimes conferences are usefully employed to get legislative work done that would be arduously time consuming in the larger legislative bodies, and sometimes they are used to strongarm pork, pet projects, and grotesquely egregious legislative items.

For example, say they are debating a bill to appropriate money to give flags to widows of Marines killed in Iraq that will most certainly pass unanimously. A legislator could, say, tack on a rider that cuts off appropriations for overseas funding of family planning centers that distribute condoms--a highly polarized issue that is difficult to raise in open session. But no one will dare vote against giving flags to war widows, so the anti-choice measure passes into law. If legislators succeed in reporting a bill out of conference, all likelihood is that it will pass resoundingly (as members of both parties have just come to an agreement). Since there is no conflict, there is no news story, and the bill passes to law without public scrutiny (usually when this happens).

As far as I can tell, the thread through S.1216 disappears when the bill is sent to the Senate Commerce Committee on 6/10/99. Go figure. I'm not saying Franken is wrong; I just don't have more time to spend on this goose chase.

In conclusion, this is a must read for all political persuasions. Intellectually honest conservatives will want to know what is behind the "facts" and people who are shaping their beliefs. And, if you can bite your tongue through the comedy routine, you may be surprised at what you learn. Intellectually cowed liberals will discover new resolve.

This is a good one for the book shelf.

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