He's Just A Bill

In my article in this week's Boston Phoenix, I make note that during the 2008 Presidential election cycle, I heard repeatedly -- from Democrats, Republicans and Independents -- about how frustrated and fed-up they were with the US Congress. In their view, Washington had become impotent to address the country's big, serious problems, because the Congress was completely frozen up by (take your pick) hyperpartisanship, corruption, special-interest groups, corporate lobbyists, inertia, and/or weak-kneed pandering pols.

There's a connection between that, and the back-and-forth we've seen in our Massachusetts US Senate race, over whether one should vote for or against the health-care reform bill, under what circumstances, and at what point in the process.

The connection is that people want the legislative process to work like they were taught in Schoolhouse Rock. The one where we meet Bill, on the steps to the Capital Building, haggard and run-down by the difficult process of becoming a law. Our friend Bill explains that he started out as an idea -- to require school buses to stop at railroad crossings -- and then had to go through a House Committee, a House vote, a Senate Committee, a Senate vote, and then get signed by the President to become law.

Bill, however, is not telling the whole story. It would depress us too much.

If we knew the whole story, we would understand that Bill is bleary-eyed from drinking whiskey on the Capitol Hill steps.

You see, first of all Bill went to five different committees, which put out five different bills. Each committee had members who threatened to kill him. Deals had to be struck. One committee was chaired by a congressman in the pocket of the bus-drivers unions. Another committee's swing vote demanded the inclusion of a provision that all the new Stop signs be made of 25% zinc, which is mined in his home district. This bartering and posturing went on for months -- even though none of it ultimately mattered, because none of these would be "the real Bill" anyway. After the committees finally approved their versions of Bill, it all got whisked into deep, secret chambers until the leadership decided to come forward with new versions of the Bill.

Meanwhile, poor Bill was under attack. Talk radio hosts called him a liberty-killing Communist. Glenn Beck and Michelle Malkin claimed that Bill would create a "school bus czar" empowered to indoctrinate children into the Black Panthers. At townhall meetings, congressmen were confronted by angry citizens holding signs of Bill with a Hitler mustache, and the words "The Third Reich made the trains run on time too!" Vicious ads appeared, paid for by "Citizens for Sensible School Transport," which was secretly financed by the locomotive industry.

Finally, the Speaker emerged from the secret chamber with poor, mangled Bill -- now disfigured beyond recognition in hopes of getting enough votes for passage. The requirement to stop had been replaced by a caution, with an (unfunded) mandate that states install a series of signs and signals, made from equal parts zinc, copper, lithium, and Georgia peaches; $1.7 billion in subsidies were added for school-bus driver retraining.

But at the last minute a group of holdouts, worried about their NRA endorsements, offered an amendment to allow children to carry concealed firearms on school buses, in case the driver failed to stop; and to allow train passengers to carry grenade launchers, for the same purpose. Although most of Bill's supporters opposed the amendment, it was added on by the votes of 176 congressmen who were going to vote against Bill with or without the change.

That very nearly drove Bill to give it all up and throw himself into a shredder -- but then he was reassured that all of that nonsense didn't matter either, because that wasn't a vote on "the real Bill." In fact, a large number of Congressmen who had just voted for  Bill immediately declared that they would vote against him if he dared to come back around in the exact same condition.

Then the Senate went through the whole charade too -- where it was even worse, because even though a majority of Senators liked Bill, it only takes 40% to kill him. Which meant that every vote was critical, which meant that every Tom, Dick and Lieberman got to pretend they would vote no unless they got something they wanted. So, out came the NRA language, but in came a complex formula for rural-school-district exemptions, and a ten-year phase-in period that grandfathers in states beginning with the letters C, M, or N.

But who cares? That wasn't the "real Bill" either. It was off to another secret chamber for Bill, where the two not-really-Bills got "reconciled" into the honest-to-goodness "real Bill." Our poor friend Bill, now a bloated, incomprehensible behemoth, was attacked from the right for his expense and overreach, and from the left for containing nothing that would actually reduce the risk of trains plowing into school buses full of children.

Nevertheless, Bill had to press on to the finish line at that point. If he got passed, his obvious flaws can be fixed in the future -- whereas going back to square one is a nightmare that Bill would rather set himself ablaze than endure.

And besides, the President and all these Congressmen and Senators promised they would pass a school-bus-railroad-crossing-reform bill. They wouldn't want to give the impression that they can't get important things done in Washington.

Perhaps if Schoolhouse Rock had given us this true, unvarnished version of Bill's saga, we would all be more patient with the seemingly impotent Congress, and we would be more understanding of the nuances of Capuano and Coakley's positions.

Or, perhaps, we would all go charging at the Capitol Building with pitchforks and torches. But if you do, please don't trample poor Bill, passed out drunk on the steps.

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