The events of last week lead many to the conclusion that America’s democracy is being destroyed. But I came to the realization that the American democracy was quite weak already. I came to this conclusion as I closely watched, for the first time, how Congress really operates.
I have been fortunate to be a part of a coalition of selfless committed people – a group called “Publish What You Pay” – that advocates for transparency in oil, gas, and mining. This coalition has been pushing for a regulation that would require oil and mining companies to disclose the payments they make to foreign governments – a regulation that Congress mandated that the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) issue. Begrudgingly, after being sued twice for excessive delay, in June 2016 the SEC finally passed a Rule that did just that. Nothing more, nothing less; it simply required that companies listed on the U.S. stock exchange publish how much they pay to foreign governments. The SEC finally passed this rule not only because the transparency groups demanded it, but also because religious groups, investors, grassroots organizations in resource-rich countries, economists, and other experts lobbied for it. Even after being adopted five years behind schedule, the Rule was drafted such that it would only come into effect in 2019!
If everybody supported this rule, who didn’t? That would be Exxon and its former CEO (now Secretary of State) Rex Tillerson personally, along with other major oil companies.
While hundreds of thousands protested the policies taking aim at human rights and rule of law, the Republicans in Congress decided that their number one priority should be to dismantle the Transparency Rule. (Or at least, number two priority; they first had to let coal companies destroy streams.) They delighted to have at their disposal a law that lets them do that – in both the House and the Senate – in a total of merely 11 hours. This law is called the Congressional Review Act (CRA). Under the CRA, Congress can wipe out any agency Rule that was made within the 60 legislative days prior to the end of the previous Congress (so long as they have a president who is willing to sign). “Legislative” days is a tricky term – because the legislators don’t really like working too hard, 60 legislative days can amount to six months or more.
The CRA is a mechanism which allows Congress to bulldoze through an effort that has taken an agency many years to complete. But the Republicans didn’t even have the patience to do the minimum before they could cast their votes for corruption. In the Senate, the 10 hours mandated by the CRA and adopted by consensus in the time agreement were set to run starting at 6pm and to last for “as long as there is interest.” In addition to the fact that most of the senators left the room, the ones who participated in the debates used up the time to speak about issues altogether unrelated to 1504 (for instance, Senator Bob Portman spent 12 minutes talking about heroin abuse in Ohio). Effectively, the “debate” was only couple hours long, and if the unrelated ramblings were taken out it would amount to less than an hour. As Senator Jeff Merkley put it, maybe those whose votes impact the lives of millions should at least be required to hear the debate rather than sitting in their office and chatting with the oil industry.
Of the one hour total debate allowed in in the House, at least half was used by representatives trying to frame a rule stipulating a waiting period before mentally-ill people can buy firearms as a restriction of the constitutional rights of disabled people.
As if that weren’t enough already…. The few Republicans who had earlier shown signs of having a little bit of spine on some of the most controversial issues our society has been facing since the inauguration (not a lot, but just enough that in these otherwise hopeless times, it seemed possible that they would actually do the right thing), what did they do? Six of them – Senators Marco Rubio, Susan Collins, Todd Young, John Boozman, Johnny Isakson and Bob Corker – wrote to the SEC to explain that although they had decided to vote to repeal the rule, but “still support transparency.”
Whoa? No. These are mutually exclusive. You cannot vote against an anti-corruption rule knowing that it cannot be brought back for a looong time and still claim that you believe in transparency.