Polling for Pork

Posted September 21, 2004 at 1:48pm

If the House can routinely mark up appropriations bills in open subcommittee sessions, why can’t the Senate? We suspect it’s partly because the Senate is chronically slow in processing appropriations bills and wants to hustle its work past public scrutiny. We suspect, too, that it may have something to do with pork — pork that sponsors are ashamed to show in the open.

There’s no mistaking the pattern — and it’s gotten worse this year. Appropriations Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) will use an obscure process called “polling” to shove eight of the 13 appropriations bills through their respective subcommittees so the public gets its first glimpse of their contents when they’re voted on by the full committee.

As Roll Call reported Monday, the historical norm is to pass two or three appropriations measures — usually the legislative branch and District of Columbia bills — through subcommittee using a telephone “poll” of its members. In 2001, partly because of the changeover in party control of the Senate, seven bills were processed by polling.

In 2002, under then-Chairman Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), only two subcommittees polled their members. Under Stevens last year, the number rose to five. This year it’s eight. In an interview, Stevens angrily asserted that he wasn’t doing things any differently from the way they’ve always been done. But at least in recent years, the record shows that 2004 is a new high-water mark.

Critics of polling include an odd-bedfellows alliance of corporate lobbyists and Congressional watchdog groups. They charge that the practice shrouds the appropriations process in secrecy. Under Stevens, details of the legislation typically are not publicly revealed until after they are voted upon by the full committee. That way, outsiders and even other Senators have reduced opportunities to seek favored treatment. Worse, there’s less of a chance that the media and public can examine the bills and make a stink if their contents are unusually laden with pork.

Two senior Senate GOP aides told Roll Call that Stevens primarily uses polling to avoid pressure from lobbyists and fellow Senators. In June, when he was working on the Defense appropriations bill, he told reporters, “You never leave a defense bill hanging out there. K Street would eat me alive.”

Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), chairman of the subcommittee on Energy and water development, said that when a bill is “totally exposed,” pressure for add-ons comes from constituents, lobbyists and fellow Senators. “Everybody has something to fix, to add to, or change. You walk on the [Senate] floor,” he said, and other Senators are “stuffing [requests] in your pockets — ‘Don’t forget me,’ you know. I think that’s the reality that polling tries to circumvent.”

That may be, but it’s hard to imagine that the pressures are any less great in the House, where this year all 13 appropriations were marked up in open subcommittee sessions. There’s no reason why the Senate has to be a bastion of secrecy — except that it’s always late in considering appropriations and it (and Stevens, especially) has a near-insatiable appetite for pork.