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Breaking (Down) the Law

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(Ed. note: This piece by Tim Conaway was referred to in the CONK! Weekend podcast of July 16-18, 2021 – specifically that Tim read the ENTIRE bill!)

A few years back I had a chance to speak one-on-one with Erik Paulsen, then the U.S. Representative from Minnesota’s 3rd District. A decent man, Paulsen was part of a group of young Republicans who weren’t into the “Good Old Boy” methods in Washington. He spoke in a well-informed, straightforward way about any subject.

I wanted his insight into the recently passed Obamacare act. He told me that there might have been some good in it, but it was hard to tell. “We got the final version about 10 o’clock on the night before it was to be voted on. It was more than 2,000 pages long.”

This ambush tactic is one of the many of what I call Lawyer Tricks that have become the fabric of Congressional behavior. Not only is proposed legislation so cumbersome that even the best minds could not digest it, but there is no realistic chance for the mediocre minds of most politicians to see more than a 20-word summary written by an overpaid clerk.

“This is one of the things we’re trying to change,” Paulsen said, referring to himself and like-minded representatives. He spoke about back-room dealings and antiquated procedures that make it hard to do the people’s business.

This recently came flooding back to me when I heard Old Squinty Eye and two other coots, career Senators well past their use-by date, arguing about a Federal election law headed that had already been blocked once in the upper chamber. Unhappy with recent legislation enacted in a few states, the Democrats claim they want to “fix” the problem with uniform federal legislation. Firmly entrenched against any Democratic-proposed action, the Republicans were posing as defenders of state’s rights (as long as it suited their agenda).

Officially bill S.1 (or H11r.1 in the House), the legislation has been titled the “For the People Act.” After all, who isn’t for the people? Usually, lame laws coming up for a close vote have the word “child” in the title, but someone told the bill’s sponsor that children can’t vote.

An official summary of the legislation is a relatively brief 232 words. The actual bill is 135,400 words, a full 372 pages long. In the official version, it proposes: “To expand Americans’ access to the ballot box, reduce the influence of big money in politics, strengthen ethics rules for public servants, and implement other anti-corruption measures for the purpose of fortifying our democracy, and for other purposes.”

I particularly like the last phrase, “and for other purposes.” If the preceding bits weren’t broad and vague enough to encompass all kinds of Congressional horseshit, then tagging on that last catchall opens the barn door to collect the offal of the rest of the Capital Hill livestock.

Unlike probably any elected official, I looked through this steaming pile. The table of contents is 10-and-one-half pages of small print. What is telling here is that beneath the broad heading of “For the People Act” there are sub-acts: Voter Empowerment Act, Voter Registration Efficiency Act, and Deceptive Practices and Voter Intimidation Act. If each of these is a separate act, why not let them stand alone for judgment by the Congressional bodies?

One part they got right is at the beginning, where it is explained that Article I, section 4 of the U.S. Constitution permits Congress to enact legislation regarding the time, place and manner of Congressional elections. The bill also cites protections of the Amendment XIV of the Constitution, and then goes on to claim that “Congress finds” all sorts of violations of this protection without citing the specifics. But they also overstep in getting into details of elections, voter districts, and ethics, none of which are encompassed under the cited Amendments.

There are plenty of provisions in this bill that already exist in most states, like online voter registration, along with “appropriate technological security measures.” Any Minnesotan who experienced the technological nightmare of the new IT system of the Department of Motor Vehicles will tell you how swell a job the state geeks might do protecting voter information.

The Dems also want “automatic” voter registration, where every available person over 18 gets added to the to the rolls. This is another electronically controlled action, in which citizens will be notified of their right to decline registration. Notice can also be sent to anyone over 16, who failing to decline might then be automatically registered, even if they are not eligible to vote. This should be a snap for state-funded IT departments.

Institutions of higher education will be required to submit data about any student who applies for a federal student loan, and information is also required from federal and state agencies under a broad range of circumstances. And if anyone wonders how their information got into the voter rolls, the institutions or agencies who provide the data will be kept secret from the citizen.

There is a big section (Restoration of Democracy Act) about giving back voting rights to convicted felons, with the Democrats’ lament that certain races are “disproportionately disenfranchised.” This presumes the tired argument that criminals should be arrested only in proportion to their race’s percentage of the population. No room here for arguments about improving educational and occupational opportunity at the root cause, but this proposal definitely comes at it from the wrong end.

Other spots that get it right is requiring paper ballots which are maintained after the election, and to provide uniform measures for early voting and absentee ballots.

And that is just the section of the proposed legislation that is actually about voting. Herein lie the legal eagle maneuvering that have pervaded all Congressional action. Cloaked in this bill are many actions only remotely related to casting votes of election day.

One is an attempt to establish a Constitutional Amendment that would overturn the Supreme Court decision Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission, which recognized that corporations and other groups had the same rights as individual citizens regarding political contributions.

There is separately an attempt to control all financial dealings – election related or not – of the President, Vice President and Cabinet members. A part of this bill would set “ethics” regulations for Supreme Court Justices, an entirely separate branch of the government, and not answerable to Congress except in the confirmation of Justices.

There is also a subsection tucked in recommending statehood for the District of Columbia, which should certainly be a matter to be dealt with separately. By the time we get through that nugget, we are still only halfway to the end.

I can’t argue that some of these measures don’t deserve to be brought forth, debated, and acted on by Congress, but I vehemently disagree with the practice of jamming so many disparate partisan platform ideas into a single piece of legislation. Hiding them under some politically popular umbrella smacks of dirty dealing in the worst way.

The people need to see what’s really going on with legislation, thereby to better judge what is or isn’t being done by the people they elect. This transparency will never come from a lawyers’ club operating behind closed doors.

Written by Tim Conaway

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CONK! News Brief Links for 7/12

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Weekend Kicker – July 16-18, 2021