Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Willy Wonka Goes to Washington

U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Louis Brandeis, referring to a smooth-functioning democracy, stated that “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” If so, then it’s time to open the curtains and windows of Capitol Hill and give it a proper airing out. For anyone who believes that Congress operates in a transparent manner with its inner workings open to public scrutiny, I would advise you to attend what is known as a “mark-up” session. Or, more accurately, TRY to attend one of these so-called public sessions. Today, the House Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs held a “mark-up” session on the FY2010 budget. I know, this stuff sounds pretty arcane. Actually though, it’s a very important step in the budget process. Today, for example, the subcommittee voted to recommend to the full Appropriations Committee that the United States give Israel $2.775 billion in weapons for FY2010 despite the fact that Israel used U.S. weapons to kill more than 3,000 innocent Palestinian civilians during those wonderful Bush Administration years in violation of the Arms Export Control Act. Since we’ve been running a multi-year campaign to challenge U.S. military aid to Israel, and since we sent every member of the subcommittee an open letter yesterday signed by nearly 40 prominent national organizations and more than 150 other local groups asking the subcommittee to end or, at the minimum, condition military aid to Israel, we naturally wanted to check out the proceedings to see if we were having any influence on the discussion. The problem was that the subcommittee scheduled the “mark-up” for a tiny room in the Capitol, a building which is nearly inaccessible to the public. On Monday, I called the subcommittee asking if the “mark-up” session was open to public. I was assured by the staffer that it was, but I was also cautioned that there was very limited seating in the room so if I wanted a shot at a seat, I better arrive at the crack of dawn to line up. Okay, I’m not exactly a morning person, but I hauled myself up and was in line this morning with two of our interns before 8:00AM, an hour before the start of the “mark-up.” Happily noting that we were the fifth, sixth, and seventh people in line, I smugly told our interns that were in as good as gold. Psych. The sergeant-at-arms came out to announce that due to space limitations, they would only be able to seat five people (by this time, the line had stretched to a few dozen, including our Code Pink friends). But, wait, he had a magic list of lobbyists, none of whom I’m quite sure gives any money to any of the members on this subcommittee, whose names he called out like the winners of Willy Wonka’s contest to step to the front of the line. Democracy in action! Fortunately, none of them bothered to show up, and I felt so honored and privileged to be allowed the opportunity to be lucky person #5 in line and get into the “mark-up.” In I went to the Capitol with the sergeant-at-arms, through the metal detector—oops, actually, twice through the metal detector because my shoes set it off the first time, down a corridor painted in heroic murals and festooned with patriotic quotes, into—another line. Well, no problem. I had waited for 45 minutes just to be one of the lucky ones let into the Capitol and I could wait a few more minutes to get into the committee room. Except, then a subcommittee staffer came out with a grave expression on her face and solemnly declared that due to space limitations, she wasn’t even sure that us lucky five would be let in. What? After I had to run in my socks through the Capitol to catch up with my group that left me behind at the metal detector? Well, sure enough, after about another half hour’s wait in line, the doors to the committee room were flung open and the lowly line peons were able to get a glimpse of those who decide how we as a nation spend our taxpayer dollars in far-flung countries around the globe. Wow, I thought to myself, I’m actually going to get into one of these and see what actually takes place (no video or transcript of these “mark-ups” are made available), as I grabbed my bag and moved forward with the line. Super-psych this time. The door literally got slammed in my face. Sorry, no more room, I was told. No worries, I said, I don’t take up much space anyway and I’ll just plant myself in a small corner. No dice, sucker. After five minutes of trying to humor my way in past the staffer, I gave up. I did ask another staffer before leaving why the subcommittee always decides to do the “mark-up” in such a small space. It’s not like Congress doesn’t have huge rooms in which to hold meetings. He answered with a grin, quite frankly, something to the effect of “To keep the public out.” Nice. Well, my hour-and-a-half adventure wasn’t a total loss. I did walk away with a consolation prize. While in line in the Capitol, I got a press release from the friendly staffer highlighting what the subcommittee decided to do in the “mark-up.” Wait, how did they figure that all out before the meeting even started? Those press secretaries must have some straight-up supernatural mind-reading powers. How come they don’t teach you any of this stuff about how Washington really works in your high school civics class? I don’t remember “closed-door meetings” and “pre-written press releases about things that are supposed to be decided on in the future” being on that neat flow chart about check and balances. --by US Campaign National Advocacy Director Josh Ruebner