A Christmas tree from Congress
In keeping with the season, Congress decorated a Christmas tree last weekend.
It came in the form of the $1.1 trillion spending bill that keeps the government operating till next September.
It’s a Christmas tree because of all the unrelated amendments — ornaments — attached to the bill.
Christmas trees flourish in Congress.
A bill is introduced, usually one that absolutely must be adopted. Then members start to decorate it with their particular favorite ornaments.
Sometimes the decorations are hung onto the tree for big contributors. Sometimes they’re for powerful constituent groups back home that wield significant political power. Sometimes they’re the members’ own favorite causes.
On occasion, the ornament is actually relevant to the bill itself.
For instance, a must-pass spending bill may get decorated with appropriations that represent line-item spending, although not necessarily along the lines of what the bill’s title stipulates.
But usually there are some ornaments that have not even a passing relationship to the original bill.
Such is the case with the massive spending bill that made it through Congress late last week.
A particular misfit in that bill is the amendment that rolls back many of the regulations adopted in the Dodd-Frank legislation after the financial meltdown of 2008.
Several huge investment firms in the years immediately preceding the crisis had engaged in shady and risky financial transactions that contributed directly to the crisis and resulted in massive government bailouts of those institutions.
Congress adopted the Dodd-Frank bill to try to prevent such questionable practices, and to protect the billions of dollars that future bailouts would cost taxpayers.
But powerful financial interests object to those Dodd-Frank provisions. They want to return to the Wild West days when they could take risks that could return huge profits, with public money protecting them against losses.
So their lobbyists, and their friends in Congress, were able to hang ornaments on last weekend’s spending bill that severely weaken the Dodd-Frank regulations.
We can expect to see the return of some of the complex, inscrutable transactions that got us into trouble in 2008.
Those particular ornaments were opposed this time by a rare blend of traditional liberals and Tea Party conservatives, with both groups unhappy about such concessions to Wall Street.
Other ornaments also drew fire, including a provision (once again unrelated to spending or appropriations) that hugely raises the limit on individual contributions to political parties.
But through trade-offs and the well-worn practice of log-rolling, a number of ornaments made it onto the Christmas tree, and the final package was adopted in truly bipartisan fashion, 57 to 40. President Obama announced that he supported the bill and was prepared to sign it into law, ornaments and all.
An irony of the entire episode is that it was a rare example of congressional compromise, something that has been sorely lacking in recent years.
Maybe we can’t expect better from today’s politicians.
It’s interesting that both Sen. Grassley and Sen. Harkin voted “no” on the final bill, something that doesn’t happen that often on major legislation.
So the government remains open for another nine months, but at some cost to worthwhile public policy.
We can probably expect to see examples of this type of Christmas spirit all too often in the months and years to come.