Sunshine Should be Part of Spring Cleaning Congress
Crain's Chicago Business
By Congressman Jesse L. Jackson, Jr.
April 3, 2006
After the long winter recess, Congress' top priority has become spring cleaning. Under Republican rule the last several years, legislation has been contaminated by unchecked power and big money.
To reverse this troubling trend, the GOP should, at the very least, implement small but sensible reform measures to clean up Congress. To start, Republicans need look no further than the civics classes at any local high school.
U.S. Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr., D-Chicago, represents the South Side and south suburbs.
As students learn, a bill becomes law when the House and the Senate pass similar pieces of legislation. To reconcile any differences between the two versions, a conference committee, made up of members from both parties and each chamber, is appointed and negotiates a final bill that then must be approved by the two bodies and signed by the president.
However, with majorities in both chambers of Congress, Republicans have abused these conference committees, meeting in secret and locking out Democrats. Worse still, they have perverted the conference committee process by routinely slipping into bills highly controversial and objectionable provisions not previously considered in either body.
Take two recent examples:
Last year, U.S. Rep. Jerry Weller, R-Morris, tucked into a defense authorization bill a provision designed to sabotage a project for which I have been the chief advocate, Abraham Lincoln National Airport. Without hearing or debate, the Weller amendment was offered to give the Federal Aviation Administration unprecedented and unconstitutional powers to invalidate a contract between the Abraham Lincoln National Airport Commission and two world-class private developers, LCOR Inc. and SNC-Lavalin Inc. It was a blatant violation of the 10th Amendment.
In the same year, but in a different defense measure, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tennessee, inserted an immunity provision for flu vaccine manufacturers. While the bill aimed to safeguard vital U.S. national security interests, Sen. Frist trained his sights on protecting the commercial interests of pharmaceutical companies. After many Senate and House members had completed negotiations, Sen. Frist conspired with the White House to add the outrageous liability protection for drug companies. The new, covert measure even included a shield for reckless misconduct in some cases.
Considering their origins and impact, these secret amendments prove an important proverb: Twisted roots yield spoiled fruit. Rotten to the core, they poison the body politic and jeopardize the American public.
So, as Republicans roll out their reform agenda, they also should close conference committees to outside, stealth provisions and open them to Democrats and to public scrutiny. The conferences are intended to make bills compatible, rather than to give skullduggery cover. Indeed, sunshine is the best antiseptic.