When laws are favors

IN 1989, two Philadelphia Inquirer reporters won a Pulitzer Prize for analyzing the sources of tax breaks in the 1986 Tax Reform Act. They dug to find the story behind every loophole -- why it was there, who wanted it, who benefited.

Lawmaking in Congress is a lingering bastion of undisclosed public business. The source and author of every provision in every law should be disclosed. Every provision is there because someone wanted it there. While the cast of characters changes from committee to committee and bill to bill, some members of Congress and congressional staffers know the history of every provision -- who asked for what.


Action on the 1989 savings-and-loan bailout bill illustrates the point. In July 1989, a conference committee met to resolve differences in the House and Senate versions of the bill. House conferees, angry about special-interest provisions added in the Senate, demanded an inventory of all of them.

In a day, Senate staff members prepared an internal memo, a copy of which I have. Sen. Alfonse D'Amato, R-N.Y., had an amendment benefiting Chemical Bank of New York and First Interstate of California. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., included an amendment benefiting Citicorp. Sen. Tim Wirth, D-Colo., wanted amendment making it easier for S&Ls; to keep junk bonds. The list was almost four single-spaced pages long.


By comparison, it took the Philadelphia Inquirer's reporters, hTC Donald Barlett and James Steele, 15 months to dig out facts on the tax bill. The reason was that committee chairmen and the staffs of the House and Senate tax committees refused to disclose information about the bill. They simply asserted their right to do so without explaining why they thought they had the right, Barlett said.

This is standard practice. Why do we tolerate it? As a first step in legislative disclosure, Congress should be required to produce an annotated sourcing of every law. The author of each provision -- from tax breaks for insurance companies to special deals that water down the Clean Air Act for auto companies to benefits for cable television -- should be noted.

The path back to the member of Congress may be clear: For example, the legislator may have offered an amendment on the House or Senate floor. Or the path may be less visible -- a letter, a phone call, a request to a committee chairman to "help me on this one."

Yes, the language of legislation is often the work of a group, the result of compromise and consensus; still, a group consists of identifiable individuals.

Some critics of secrecy on Capitol Hill may think that application of the Freedom of Information Act to Congress could solve the problem. That act covers federal executive departments, Pentagon departments and independent regulatory agencies. In writing the law, Congress kept itself off the list. Plugging that hole is a good idea, but not sufficient.

What's needed is obligatory disclosure at the time legislation is drafted; otherwise, only people with plenty of time, money and specialized knowledge can gain access to information.

Every two years, Congress adds a total of 5,000 or more new pages to the law books. Like long-forgotten leaking chemical drums in a dump, the ill effects of buried favors and hidden deals may not rise to the surface until years later. We ought to know whose fingerprints were on the shovels.

Robert Potts, a former congressional staff member, is a political consultant.