Senate shenanigans

By Henry Lamb

We are now entering one of the most dangerous periods in American political life: the last month of Congress before an election. This is the time when all kinds of junk legislation gets passed by congressmen who are eager to sneak through their pet projects while everyone else is eager to finish the business and get home to campaign.

Congress is facing the requirement to enact several appropriation bills, the Iraq hearings, the Homeland Security Act, the economy and the overarching need to embarrass the other political party to gain some advantage before the November election.

In this context, watch Florida’s Sen. Bob Graham.

He is going to try to amend an appropriation bill – not to change the amount – but to substantially change the language of a previous congressional authorization and directive.

This is a tried-and-true tactic to get Congress to do what it would not do if the issue were debated and decided on its merits. Both parties use this tactic, and both parties complain when the other party is successful. Environmental organizations in Florida have filed a lawsuit because the Florida Legislature used this tactic to pass a measure at the end of the session, which they did not like. Many of these same environmental organizations, however, are urging Bob Graham to use the tactic to change existing law to give the Corps of Engineers authority to flood hundreds of homeowners who live in Dade County’s “8.5 Square Mile Area.”

In 1989, Congress authorized and appropriated the funds to construct the Modified Water Delivery System, and the C-111 Canal. The legislation specifically required the project to protect the private landowners from flooding.

The South Florida Water Management District did not want to protect the landowners, and withdrew support for the Corps’ plans. The Corps devised a compromise that would flood only some of the homes. Landowners went to court, and won. The judge said the Corps did not have authority, under the law, to do anything but protect the landowners from flooding.

Now, Bob Graham wants to change that law – not by debating the merits of flooding the landowners – but by sneaking an amendment onto an appropriation bill amid the confusion of Congress’ rush to finish business and go home to campaign.

A similar effort was made when the appropriation bill was in committee. Here’s the language proposed to the committee:

In response to a local magistrate’s ruling, the Committee makes clear Congress’ intent regarding the expeditious completion of the flood-protection system for the 8.5 Square Mile Area and further clarifies that Congress intended the Army Corps of Engineers to implement a flood-protection system known as “Alternative 6D” which combines both land acquisition within the 8.5 Square Mile Area and construction of an interior levee and seepage canal.

Congress intended no such thing. Congress said explicitly to protect the homes from flooding, and said nothing about “land acquisition” in the area.

Fortunately, Representatives Don Young and Jim Hansen invoked a House Rule that prevents attaching legislative changes to appropriation bills, and the language was stricken.

Bob Graham, in response to pressure from environmental groups, is expected to try to reintroduce similar language when the appropriation bill comes up for Senate approval.

It is a very small matter to the 535 congressmen who are forced to approve 13 appropriation bills, decide whether or not to bomb Saddam Hussein, create a massive Department of Homeland Security, fix the economy – all the while criticizing the other party sufficiently to gain the upper hand in the November election.

It is a matter of survival for the people who live in the flood-target area. Failure to comply with the 1989 congressional directive has already caused the value of the land to plummet below mortgage balances. People who live there routinely have to wade in thigh-deep water to get to their vehicles that can no longer negotiate the washed-out roads.

Many of the people who live in the area came to America when their land in Cuba was taken by Castro’s communist takeover. Now their American government is trying to take their land so alligators and cottonmouth snakes won’t be inconvenienced.

These people have found allies all across the country whose land has been taken, or its use severely restricted by the federal government’s relentless land-grabs in recent years. They have organized the Sawgrass Rebellion to focus national attention on the injustices heaped on the people in South Florida. Tens of thousands of people are watching Bob Graham’s efforts to use sinister political tricks to bypass debate and change the clear language of the law through an appropriation bill.

Senators, be advised: The nation is watching … and an election is coming.