As a kid, I watched my Grandma Rosie make link sausage (all that gross fat and pork). Gross! Remembering that experience, I am thinking about the midterm elections on November 8th. Like who can ignore them? I thought since we have candidates promising us the sun and the moon, it would be a good time to brush up on how our laws are actually made. We’re told there might be new sausage chefs eager to prepare bills and pass new laws.
Who Makes the Sausage?
According to several sources, including an article in Investment Watch, those people we elect to represent us don’t actually write the legislation or the laws. “In modern politics not a single member of the House or Senate writes a law. Or puts pen to paper to write out a legislative construct.”
It’s all handed off to a variety of sous chefs – many of them on K-Street. Here are some of them:
- Sometimes the groups are special interest organizations such as specific advocacy groups, veterans (most recently) – usually nonprofits who depend on their elected officials or a House or Senate committee to hear them out and to support their cause.
But here is where the sausage is really made – by the direct influence of special interest groups. They come “bearing gifts” (PAC $$, campaign contributions, and lately stock-trading cues). They can represent foreign governments, Wall Street, multinational corporations, banks, tech monoliths, weapons manufacturers, financial groups, medical and business interest groups. They are there to shape policy as well as the bills that go to the House and Senate, to become the eventual laws favorable to their interests. They have fully staffed offices – their only business is getting the legislation passed.
- And let’s not forget the lobbyists – lots of them. They have the ear of the staff and elected representatives and are usually former House/Senate staff or former politicians. In 2021 there were 12,137 active, registered lobbyists. This doesn’t count foreign lobbyists whose total spending since 2016 is $3,710,529,889.
Here’s a recent example of how lobbyists work for a client. From The Lever: “Intel cheered on a $76 billion subsidy package for their industry, then announced capital spending cuts and mass layoffs while maintaining payouts to shareholders.”
These organizations spend the most money (into the multi-millions) influencing government policy: the US Chamber of Commerce, National Assn of Realtors, Pharmaceutical Research & Manufacturers of America, Blue Cross/Blue Shield, American Hospital Assn, American Medical Assn, Meta, Amazon.com, Business Roundtable, American Chemistry Council, America’s Health Insurance Plans, Comcast Corp, AARP, General Motors, Northrup Grumman, Lockheed Martin, Alphabet Inc, CTIA, The Internet & Television Assoc, Biotechnology Innovation Organization.
The one chef that’s missing is us – the American people whose unmet needs are many: a living wage, affordable healthcare, sound working conditions, non-toxic air and safe drinking water, social and financial help of all kinds – for children, students, families, and elders.
“The lack of transparency is a huge political advantage. Call it the stupidity of the American voter or whatever, but basically, that was really, really critical for the thing to pass,” said Dr. Jonathan Gruber, Ford Prof of Economics at MIT, commenting on his role in getting the Affordable Care Act written and passed for the Obama administration.
The USA PATRIOT Act – One of the fastest sausages ever made
The USA PATRIOT Act of 2001 was passed on October 26, 2001 in response to the September 11, 2001 attacks. The three key provisions were: roving wiretaps, searches of business records, and conducting surveillance, particularly of “lone wolves” – individuals suspected of terrorist-related activities but not linked to known groups.
The House passed a “clean” bill on October 24, 2001, which both incorporated and resolved differences between the House and Senate measures. The House had earlier approved the legislation by a vote of 357-66, with 62 Democrats voting against it along with three Republicans and Independent Rep. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
The bill passed with little discussion. The usual process of public hearings, markups, and floor debate were bypassed almost entirely. There were reportedly only two copies of the bill available as the congress debated. Many House and Senate members admitted after its passage that they had not even read the bill before voting on it. The 342-page Act includes more than 150 sections and amends over 15 federal statutes, including laws governing criminal procedure, surveillance, foreign intelligence, wiretapping, and immigration.
The Senate agreed on the changes the following day, with just one dissenting vote and one nonvoting member. President George W. Bush signed the bill into law on October 26, 2001. The one dissenting vote in the Senate was that of Russ Feingold.
Senator Feingold observed that even within the single month since 9/11, there was “ample reason for concern over the potential loss of commitment to traditional civil liberties. Even as America addresses the demanding security challenges before us, we must strive mightily also to guard our values and basic rights,” he said. “We must guard against racism and ethnic discrimination against people of Arab and South Asian origin and those who are Muslim.” Soon, however, the controversial No-Fly list was instituted and then expanded.
Some elements of the PATRIOT ACT have since been eliminated when the Act has come up for reauthorization. However, since its passage and repassage(s), a variety of opponents of the law have raised questions about several components: indefinite detention of immigrants, allowing the FBI to search telephone, e-mail, and financial records without a court order.
Maybe Russ Feingold was more prescient than he’s been given credit for. According to a Pew Research Public Trust poll from 1958 – 2022, trust in government is at an all-time low. Only two-in-ten Americans say they trust the government in Washington to do what is right “just about always” (2%) or “most of the time” (19%). Trust in the government has declined somewhat since last year, when 24% said they could trust the government at least most of the time. In 1960 (the Eisenhower years) trust levels were 75%; in 2022 (the Trump & Biden years) trust levels are at 20%.
This is not to say don’t bother to vote. It would be nice, however, if some time young adults, working and retired persons, and young families could be included in the sausage making. That might create legislation that expresses in poll after poll what ordinary Americans need in order to thrive. It might even restore a bit of faith in government.
Photo credits: Sausage – likemeat, Wall Street sign – Chris li, Demonstration – Joseph Chan.