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Doubting Thomas ...JoshIm a

Doubting Thomas ...

Josh,

I’m a researcher who spends loads of time on Thomas [the congressional website which publishes the text of legislation and other information on Congress] and I can tell you with 100% certainty that…

1) Thomas is slow to update. Fast moving bills don’t get posted in a timely manner. I’m talking weeks and not days.

2) Certain bills or amendments “of interest” do not appear until they are (well) passed.

Thanks,

GM


Sounds right.

The United Church of

The United Church of Christ (UCC) plans to run a major ad campaign in December to raise public <$Ad$>awareness of the denomination. One of the ads is meant, in the words of a UCC press release, to convey the message "that -- like Jesus -- the United Church of Christ seeks to welcome all people, regardless of ability, age, race, economic circumstance or sexual orientation."

You can see the ad here -- it features two burly bouncers turning various people away from a church service. And if you watch it you'll see that the broad message of inclusion over intolerance places a prominent emphasis on acceptance of homosexuals in the life of the church.

Yet, according to a press release out this evening from the UCC, both CBS and NBC have refused to air the ad because the subject matter is "too controversial."

Again, look at the ad because the spot raises the topic in about as innocuous and uncontroversial a way as is imaginable. Homosexuality is never even broached explicitly.

(This case is similar to this instance last September when CNN refused to air an ad by the Log Cabin Republicans because it too was deemed "too controversial". In that case, at least the ad was hard-hitting. But even that feeble excuse doesn't apply in this case.)

According to the UCC press release, CBS explained its decision, in part, as follows ...

"Because this commercial touches on the exclusion of gay couples and other minority groups by other individuals and organizations," reads an explanation from CBS, "and the fact the Executive Branch has recently proposed a Constitutional Amendment to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman, this spot is unacceptable for broadcast on the [CBS and UPN] networks."


(I'm unclear on why the CBS statement would speak for CBS and UPN. And at first I wondered whether the dispute was with an affiliate or a station owner who owns both CBS and UPN affiliates. But the press release seems quite specific and clear that the ads have been rejected by both the "CBS and NBC television networks.")

If this is really the case, we seem now to be in a country where political campaigns can be waged with flurries of ads replete with demonstrable falsehoods. And yet clear and tame political speech aimed at a pressing national debate isn't acceptable.

CBS's explanation seems to rest on the preposterous argument that because the ad addresses a major public debate that that makes it "unacceptable".

Or is it just that discussing homosexuality is "unacceptable"?

Late Update: As numerous more media-consolidation-savvy TPM readers have now pointed out to, Viacom owns both CBS and UPN, thus the joint refusal to air the ad.

A number of readers

A number of readers have pointed out that the text of numerous pieces of pending legislation is already available online on Thomas (which is, by the way, a very useful resource).

And that's true. Indeed, it's also true, as I understand it, that the three day rule is still in place. And since bills are public documents, which could easily be tossed up on the net, you might almost say that my proposal is already in place.

But of course the problem is that the rules are flouted when they really count, when the really unconscionable provisions are being added in at the last minute. If the shades can be drawn whenever the folks on the Hill want something hidden, then the rules are meaningless, a joke.

Yet again from Reuters...Bushs

Yet again (from Reuters)...

Bush's current homeland security adviser, Frances Townsend, is one of the leading candidates to succeed Ridge. Another possible successor is Undersecretary Asa Hutchinson, analysts said.


That, or the guy who installed the alarm system at the ranch.

A few days ago

A few days ago I said that the Democrats have yet to really understand what it means to be or act like a true party of opposition. I mean many things by this, which I hope to explore in the coming weeks and months. But in this case, for what we're discussing on the site now, I'm referring to how opposition can enable reformism.

Before 1994 and, to a lesser degree, before 2000, Democrats simply weren't in a position to adopt a genuine reform agenda because they were too implicated in the institutional corruption, the money chase, that is modern Washington. They could want change in some abstract way and they push for it at the margins. But their way of doing business on the Hill and in Washington generally was inseparable from it. It's how they ran Congress; it was how they raised their money to win elections; their friends (and that means personal and professional friends) who'd already cycled into the lobbying sector made their money from it; and many or most of them expected eventually to do the same.

I know this paints with a broad brush; and in some ways it may paint an ungenerous picture. But it is in most respects accurate.

For some years after 1994 congressional Democrats understandably acted as though they were the natural majority just temporarily displaced. So all those tendencies remained. And, as I noted above, to a lesser degree, they persisted through 2000 because holding the White House created parallel dynamics.

But now none of those are true. And the Democrats’ exclusion not just from power but from the money and lobbying game is far greater than that which the Republicans faced when they were in the minority.

There are two reasons for this: one structural and one political.

First, when the Democrats were in the majority, the two parties roughly split the money. By and large, business gave money to the Dems because they had power and to the Republicans because of their policies. That doesn’t mean there weren’t lots of pro-business Democrats, both in good ways and bad. But that basic paradigm captures the pre-1994 reality, particularly for the last ten to twenty years of the Dems’ majority. Once the Dems lost their majority and seemed destined for a long period out of power, political money swung strongly in the Republicans' favor.

Second, folks like Tom DeLay, Grover Norquist and others have worked diligently for the last decade to turn K Street into an arm of the Republican machine. That has meant telling trade groups and industry lobbies in no uncertain terms not to hire Democrats. Do so and you’ll be blackballed, is the message.

Placing Republican soldiers (ex-Hill staffers, pols, and operatives) as heads of the major trade organizations not only gives the GOP machine a finer control over K Street --- its money-giving, its political influence and its capacity to make trouble --- it also creates a ready source of patronage, a source of high-salaried jobs where political talent and loyalists can be placed before they move on to their next task. This is the nuts-and-bolts of what people are talking about when they compare the GOP’s Washington machine to Tammany Hall and the urban political machines of old.

There are quite a few downsides to total exclusion from power in Washington; but there are a few upsides too. And one is the ability to push for genuine reform, to think seriously, creatively and (relatively) unrestrainedly about change (and not just ape it, as the Republicans did in the early ‘90s.) Yet, too many Democrats don't seem to see clearly enough that on this point politics and principle entirely coincide for them.

Let me finish on this note.

I’ve always been a bit sour and suspicious about that political creature homo goodgovernmentus, and the allure of a politics unconnected to interests or money or patronage. There is such a thing as ‘honest graft’, to use the phrase of the old city machines. Patronage and political machines can and often do help to shape politics in beneficial ways. And to me getting good results in legislation and governance is much more important than the purity of how those results are achieved. At their worst good government or clean government types put the niceties of process and purity over the good legislation. (That's one reason why reformism has often had a hard time escaping an elitist coloration.)

But American history goes in cycles; the tide of institutional corruption ebbs and flows. And one needn’t indulge in naïve fantasies that the power of money or interests or greed can ever be expelled from politics to see that the pendulum has swung very far in their direction at the moment and that their influence can and must be restrained far more than they presently are.

Just as you can’t prevent barnacles from fixing themselves to the hulls of ships that doesn’t mean that you don’t periodically scrape them off when they become wildly overgrown.

Right now the hull of the ship of state is horribly overgrown with barnacles and all manner of other moneyed and interested crustaceans. And just as it makes no sense to let positive change be stymied by a too fastidious concern with clean political process, we’re now at the point where the dirtiness of politics --- or rather the institutional corruption, no, the legalized prostitution that our politics now is --- makes progressive legislation in the public interest close to impossible. All the more reason for Democrats to yoke together their values and their political interest and become a genuine party of reform.

More reader response ...Public

More reader response ...

Public review of bills: Having worked in government relations for a major corporation, I can tell you without hesitation: Big business would hate it and it would help cleanse the process (reduced pork and hidden deals ) and return the media to a role more in keeping with the framers' intent.

Greg F.


More to follow ...

A personal and professional

A personal and professional note: I would be remiss if I did not mention that as of today the TPM world headquarters has relocated from Washington, DC to New York. I've actually been spending the majority of my time here for a few months. So you shouldn't notice any great difference. And I'll be in DC regularly. (In fact, I'm training down this evening.) But this is now the home base.

Some reader response to

Some reader response to the public access to legislation idea.

Most responses were quite positive. But one reader wrote the following ...

Josh, I've only viewed lawmaking from afar, but the idea of opening up bills to public viewing seems problematic. As a journalism student I hear about and, to a degree, internalize the value of transparency in the editorial process, so it seems a logical extension to support the same principle in legislative process. The rub, though, lies in the obvious follow-up questions: what kind of citizen action ensues once we open bills to public view? Will interest groups and constituents begin poring over bills and blogger comments on them, then flood Congresspersons with emails and calls and letters? My guess is yes. Then what effect does this action have on legislators and staff? Will the tide of feedback choke the process, resulting in gridlock? Again, my guess is yes. Given the GOP agenda, it's tempting to call this a good thing, but it just feels wrong to support a new rule because of its obstructive value, especially because it doesn't really jibe with the goal of promoting good government. As a principle, transparency is great, but we need to weigh its likely consequences before giving any measure our support or disapproval.

Dan N.


Another former Hill staffer provided the following historical context ...

Josh: I've been away from the Senate for 2 years ( I left after 26 years in senior management positions for three Democratic US Senators), so I'm sure one of your friends might have a more contemporary response to your post. But, here's mine: What you propose--having the bills available to the public at least 3 days before being voted on--was, at one time, the normal course of business. The process the way it's suppose to run (and the way it ran when I first came to work in Congress 25+ years ago):

A budget gets adopted in April or so, which gives the appropriations committees their spending target levels.

Once they have their target levels, each appropriations subcommittee puts together its bill. I believe there are 13 different subcommittees and 13 different bills.

Each one of those bills is brought to the floor for consideration. A copy of the committee-passed bill is published in advance for members and the public, along with a committee report, which is a layman's description of the bill. The normal course of business is to pass 13 separate, free standing appropriations bills.

I believe the problem this past year was the Republicans were unable to agree on a budget. The appropriations committee waited for that budget until they could wait no longer, and then started forward with spending targets they worked on themselves. An election year, coupled with infighting among Republicans on what their spending priorities should be, led them to conclude it would be better to wait until after the election to finish their "business." Democrats in Congress could pledge to:

Not have multi bill appropriations, like this 3000 page bill;

Or, at a minimum, have any appropriations bill available to the public for at least three days, regardless of whether its a single bill or big package of appropriations bills.

Hope this helps. Let me know if you have questions.

GB

[In a subsequent email, the same emailer added following ...]

One point to make clear--there obviously were similar, multi-subcommittee bills that passed as one large appropriations bill when the Democrats controlled Congress. I don't have access to stats on how many times "we" did it, but we did it, too. I don't remember whether we sprung it on people without the opportunity to review it. However, the more common situation was one or two, or maybe three of the most controversial bills being put together in one bill at the end, when it became clear that they couldn't pass on their own. If my memory is correct, I think the stats would reveal that to be more often the case.


More on this to <$NoAd$>follow ...

Like we said from

Like we said (from WaPo...)

With the three Cabinet replacements Bush has announced so far for his second term, he kept his circle tight by dispatching White House staff members to take over the State, Justice and Education departments. Aides said many other such moves will be announced, because Bush and senior adviser Karl Rove are determined to "implant their DNA throughout the government," as one official put it.


No dissent, no second-guessing, no challenging preconceived notions.

I mentioned a couple

I mentioned a couple days ago how important reader emails are to this site. At the same time, though, in the hundreds or often thousands of emails that come in every week there are many suggestions which can't but seem naive or unrealistic to a jaded Washington eye. Sometimes they're infected with blog triumphalism, an unrestrained belief that blogs or similarly-situated sites can and should revolutionize all politics and media (an attitude with which I have little patience.)

Last week, when news of the Istook Amendment first surfaced, I received several emails that seemed clearly to fall into this category. Since the tax-snooping language was only spotted by a rushed staffer in the few hours Senators and their staffs had to read over the bill, a number of TPM readers suggested that blogs and their readers be harnessed to comb through future bills to uncover whatever foolish, nefarious or simply unconscionable provisions might be lurking inside them.

At first, as I said, though the intention seemed admirable, I wasn't particularly impressed by this idea. But over a few days, as I considered it further, it occurred to me that maybe I was the one who wasn't being realistic or rather was too stuck in conventional ways of thinking.

Allow me to explain.

Democrats are already pushing for a return to the observance of the rule which mandated that members of congress must be given at least three days to review legislation in its final form before it was called to a vote.

But why stop there? Giving legislators a reasonable opportunity to review a bill before they vote to make it law is the barest of bare minimums, especially now that bills are often coming out of conference in a dramatically new form. But why should only legislators get a chance to look at the bill? Forget the issue of purported centrality of blogs. Why not make bills publicly and readily available (and I emphasize 'readily') for three days before they can be brought to a vote?

I can think of a number of reasons why not to. (I can imagine friends on the Hill sending me long lists of them.) But I'm not sure any of them are good reasons. Yes, it would expose the unseemly work of legislative horse-trading without which successful coalition and law-making may not be possible. A more valid concern is that the 'public' process would be heavily weighted toward single-interest advocacy groups -- pro-choice and pro-life, gun control vs. pro-gun, etc. -- since those are the only ones organized and resourceful enough to act.

But again, are any of those reasons good ones balanced against the public's right to know in advance what their elected representatives are voting on? And, remember, this isn't some abstract issue of transparency. Keeping the contents of legislation not only secret from the public but from legislators themselves kills accountability and makes it far too easy for private interests to feed off the public interest.

Lurking in the background here are two related issues we'll be returning to: whether the Democratic party can embrace a true, rather than a cosmetic, agenda of reform and whether Democrats, after ten years out of power in Congress and four years in exile from the White House, can start acting like a true opposition party.

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