Bill parts don’t quite go together

Published 10:04 am Saturday, October 10, 2009

Someone forwarded me an e-mail the other day with the subject line “Ronnie’s Gym and Window Tinting.” I scrolled down the e-mail to see a photo of a real brick-and-mortar store with a bright yellow sign advertising — sure enough — a gym and window tinting service all in one. Underneath the photo, the caption read: Who says gyms and window tinting don’t go together?

The e-mail was meant as a joke. Most of us have chuckled at similar stores we pass that provide services or things that just don’t quite go together. I thought to myself how ironic it was that something similar occurred in Washington this week — and that was not meant to be a joke at all.

This week, the House of Representatives voted on the annual bill that sets policy and direction for the Department of Defense. This must-pass annual legislation typically garners strong support on both sides of the aisle. This year, however, the legislation was far from noncontroversial. Tucked into this national security bill was a divisive social policy measure having nothing to do with our military or our national security.

The controversial provision, known as “hate crimes”, will afford gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender victims of crimes preference over other victims of crimes. Scores of faith leaders and conservatives have actively voiced their opposition to hate crimes language primarily because of strong evidence that the legislation could be used to infringe on freedom of speech and religion and be used to prosecute ministers who preach homosexual behavior as sin. Yet for years, activists in favor of hate crimes legislation have tried to pass stand-alone bill without success. However, in as many years, the controversial bill has never passed in the Senate on its own — which makes it tempting for advocates of the provision to find a bill that they are certain will become law and attach their bill to that. Say for instance, a bill whose purpose is to provide for the defense of our nation.

On Thursday we watched as the congressional leadership engineered a particularly egregious abuse of the legislative process using the broad bipartisan support for our men and women in uniform as leverage to pass divisive social policy. They’ve turned our national defense policy bill into a political pawn. And it is just plain wrong.

While many Americans may not be aware of this particular transgression, they certainly are awake to the fact that their elected representatives in Washington are willing to bend, stretch, and outright ignore established rules and the legislative process for political gain. Whether it involves cutting off debate, demanding votes before legislation is read or the cost is calculated, a wholesale prevention of allowing Members to offer improvements to a piece of legislation, or other actions clearly denying the rules of order or common sense — it is an alarming trend in Washington of which Americans are particularly weary.

Americans do not understand how provisions completely unrelated to the issue at hand can be added to legislation, let alone passed and signed into law. They cannot comprehend how leadership in Congress can stifle debate on legislation, when lawmakers by their very nature are supposed to be asking tough questions about legislative proposals. They can’t believe how an unprecedented 61 bills were called for a vote less than 24 hours after being introduced in the 110th Congress, giving Members of Congress little to no time to read the bill text.

Regardless of where one stands on the hate crimes provision, there were other gravely concerning issues with this particular defense bill, not the least of which was the removal of a House provision to extend for one year a long overdue and well-deserved benefit for our nation’s disabled veterans known as concurrent receipt.

The law requires that the administration present a shipbuilding plan and a certification that the budget will meet that plan. In defiance of the law, the administration has simply refused to do it. The law also requires that they submit an aviation plan. They refused to do that, too. In response, the House Armed Services Committee unanimously passed a congressional resolution of inquiry requiring that the plan be submitted by Sept. 15. Still, the administration ignored the law.

Earlier this year before the defense budget was sent to Congress, this administration issued a gag order preventing senior Pentagon officials from speaking with members of Congress about budget cuts and the risks to our national defense, consequently preventing transparency in the defense budget process. They have apparently issued a similar order now to Gen. Stan McChrystal regarding his Afghanistan assessment. In short, we have a defense policy bill that is being driven by social and budget pressures rather than our budget being driven by our defense needs.

While stores like Ronnie’s Gym and Window Tinting with odd pair services may make us shake our heads and chuckle, Americans find nothing light or humorous about such acts making their way into policy that defines the laws of our nation. The American people deserve better and they know it.