Congresses License to Lie

We can learn a lot from history, this little bit was printed in Readers Digest many years ago but it tells us what congress will try to get away with if it can. 
This policy has changed, but only because they were caught.

Congresses License to Lie

reprinted from the February 1983 issue of Reader’s Digest.

See Hon. Charles Mc CE Mathias, Jr. Chairman, joint committee on printing Congress of the United States Washington, DC

Dear Sen. Matthias:

I’m writing to you about what may be the most outrageous cover-up in Washington.  And since you’re now winding up a two-year stint on the committee Congress has appointed to carry out that cover-up, I’d like to ask you a few questions.

They involve a set of documents that should be the least secret papers in government: the transcripts of public statements congressmen make on the floors of the House and Senate.  Your committee oversees publication of these transcripts, which it publishes daily in the congressional record.  Yet when I asked your staff to let me read them, I was told they are secret-or in your words “non public.”

The reason for the secrecy, I found, is a bizarre process called revising and extending the transcripts.  First, some 13 shorthand reporters, alternating in ten minute shifts, take down a verbatim record of all House and Senate debate.  About half an hour after a Congressman says something on the floor, he can go to the reporters workroom and pick up a typed copy.  The copy will be delivered that evening to typesetters at the government printing office {GPO} as their manuscript for setting the next day’s congressional record.  But before it goes to the GPO, the congressman is allowed to revise and extend his words.

Everyone understands the original purpose of the “revise privilege.”  In heat of debate, even a Winston Churchill can get tangled up in his facts and grammar.  So congressmen are given a crack at the reporters’ transcripts, to tidy it up-strictly for clarity’s sake.

But that’s by no means the way it works-and here we begin to see why your committee is so nervous about the transcripts.  According to congressional rules and custom, what a member actually does to his manuscript is a matter between him and his conscience.  Nobody checks up on him.  And so, revising and extending has often been used as a license to lie.  Last spring your colleague Barry Goldwater, denouncing senators who routinely wiped out whole speeches from the record, expressed his “disgust with the way the record is abused.” 

But they don’t just wipe out words they wish they hadn’t uttered.  They also glue in whole speeches they wish they had delivered, and they alter words to reverse positions they wish they hadn’t taken.  As a result, the record is probably the government’s most untrustworthy official publication-up to 70 percent of what is in it was never spoken on the floor, and 10 to 15 percent of what was spoken doesn’t get in it.  One study of just two day’s worth of transcripts, by a researcher for columnist Jack Anderson, found “thousands” of changes, some trivial and some substantial.  Anderson reported that insiders consider the record “a fraud, a travesty, a monumental sham.” 

In the 1970s the late William A.Steiger, a Wisconsin representative, began collecting examples of the wide variety of fiction and myths that appears in the record as fact.  His extensive findings included 131 page issue of the record that came out in 1977 for a day Congress was not even in session. {The issue contained “for remarks” by Senator Hubert Humphrey, despite the fact that Humphrey was then some thousand miles away in a Minneapolis hospital.)  A 1972 issue had Representative Hale Boggs delivering an address to the house two days after he took off in a small plane from an Alaska airport and disappeared forever.  A single 1977 issue contained 24 speeches (all of them on the subject of congressional ethics) --by the absent members.

Equally peculiar was the nutty speech attributed to former Rep. Earl Landgrebe on August 14, 1974, just after President Nixon resigned.  According to the record, Landgrebe in offering a weird plan that would restore Nixon to the presidency, reminded colleagues of his previous offer to gladly stand up and be shot at the ex- president’s side.  Moreover, he said, when he first made this joint-execution offer, “many wonderful people wrote me recommending this course.” The speech was a hoax, written by some young summer interns working for other congressmen.

During the 1970s there was such an epidemic of hoaxes that Congress finally tried a “meaningful reform.”  In 1978 it ruled that henceforth any words put in the record by a member who hadn’t actually spoken them on the floor would be identified by two printers “bullets,” one at the beginning and one of the end.  This was hailed as a milestone.

But it contained a loophole big enough to permit the passage of all 535 members marching abreast.  The new rule applies only to off the floor remarks.  Once you get on the House floor and speak the magic passwords, “I request unanimous consent to revise and extend my remarks,” you can later slash away at the Transcript, with no bullets to show where you started amending or where you stopped. (In the Senate you don’t even have to give the password; you need only deliver one sentence of your speech verbally to escape the bullet.)

Distorting the record can often seriously mislead public, the courts or Congress itself.  In December 1981, for example, Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, reintroduced a noncontroversial bill for the relief of black-lung sufferers, previously passed by the House and now back from the Senate.  Though he went into minute detail on all the bill’s benefits for minors, Rostenkowski told his colleagues nothing about a provision quietly added that morning in the Senate by Sen. Robert Dole.  The Dole amendment authorized the IRS to approve special tax deductions for members of Congress, including an annual deduction of over $19,000 on their Washington living expenses.  Why this secrecy?  There was a strong faction in the house that might have killed the bill had they known about the rider.  But a large number didn’t know, and the bill flew through the house like a kite in high wind.

But that was just the first half of the double shuffle.  Lest anyone later accuse the leadership of trying to hide the amendment, the revised privilege was used the following day to add two paragraphs to the transcript of Rostenkowski’s remarks, meticulously explaining the tax bonanza for Congressmen.  Rostenkowski was home free–until a piece of detective work I’ll describe later finally pinned the deed to him.

One of the most outrageous ripoffs in pork barrel history, the $137 -million plus Tellico dam project in Tennessee, was pushed through the house by a similar deception.  Among its local promoters were real estate speculators who had bought useless land along the Little Tennessee River, planning to sell it for large profits as “Lake-view properties” once the dam and its reservoir were completed.  The project had run into conflict with a half-dozen federal and state laws, one of which brought construction to a halt.  Then’ on June 18th 1979, its chief House backer, Rep. John J. Duncan of Tennessee, quietly slipped an amendment to the house that not only ordered the project’s immediate completion but also made the dam immune to any federal or state law it violated !  Duncan never explained the amendment on the floor, and House passed it in ignorance of its contents.  But readers of your publication will never know this, for the next day’s record quotes Duncan as having explained it in full.

The courts and federal agencies can also be deceived by the counterfeiting of the record. Observe the issue of last August 19, the day Congress voted for a $98 billion tax increase in 1983.  The transcript contains a seemingly impossible phenomenon: 7 full pages of four speeches (about 10,000 words) apparently delivered just before the vote on the floor of the house in a single 10 minute period.  Yet there are no bullets in the record to indicate that any of these speeches were not delivered on the floor. 

How was the trick accomplished?  Each congressman just used his revised privilege, which allowed him to go back to his office and answered a speech into the record so that it appeared to have been delivered just before the vote.

What difference does this make?  This year when the courts and the IRS interpret the language of the new tax act, the’ll look up the act’s “legislative history,” which includes transcripts of the debate supposed to show what Congress had in mind when it put particular words in the law.  How then to distinguish true debate from pages of remarks later added?  They’ll just have to guess.

So my first question to you, Senator, is this: for whom do you publish the record?  Is it a public relations handout for your colleagues?  Or is it what most of the country has always thought it to be--a source of factual information for the press, the electorate and the government itself?

My second question is about the committee’s acquiescence in the records distortion.  I stumbled onto this cover up after Sen. Ernest Hollings referred to Sen. Howard Metzenbaum as “the Sen. From B’nai B’rith” during a heated exchange over school prayer in the fall of 1981.  The widely reported remark was interpreted by some as an anti-Semetic.

Although Hollings insisted he had spoken in jest, it was hardly an inconsequential matter.  But when I tried to determine who said what, I ran into an almost total vacuum of official information.  Reporters in the galleries had picked up only a fraction of the exchange.  The record did have a single word of it!

I hoped someone could give me an accurate word-by-word account.  But as best I could discover no documentation of the argument exists.  How is this possible?  Because a number of the Senate’s rules and practices appear to have been designed in part to prevent the public from getting any transcript of floor debate that hasn’t first been doctored.

First, no tape recorders are permitted anywhere in the chamber, not even in the press gallery.  Second, the public is not permitted to take notes on what is said; guards will eject anyone caught, taking notes in the visitors gallery.  Finally, no carbons or photocopies of the official transcripts are made.

Thus, incredibly, the only version of the deliberations of the world’s most powerful legislative body consists of a single manuscript that is given to the members to alter with scissors and glue pot before it goes to the printer.  Nevertheless, the existence of the slashed up transcripts gave me one last ray of hope.  After the typesetters are done with them, they’re stacked on the GOP’s shelves for at least a year.  Maybe I could have a look?

Absolutely not.  I discovered that only once has an outsider been allowed to see the marked-up manuscripts: Jack Anderson’s researcher.  But that was almost four years ago (just after the big “reform”) and he studied just two days’ manuscripts.  Since two days is a pretty limited sampling, I asked your committee to give me access to all existing transcripts.

Evidently, though, the Anderson column, had caused consternation in Congress.  (Among other things, it identified one of your most powerful colleagues, Sen. Russell Long, as one of the record’s most “industrious political editors.”) so when I made my request, your staff chief asked me if I would identify specific record-fakers by name.  Yes I would.

Then I received your committee’s secrecy edict: the papers, I was told, are the personal property of the members of Congress.  Each member owns the copy of his own remarks, and not even another member is allowed to see it without permission.  Moreover, it would be useless for me to sue under the freedom of information act; Congress has exempted itself from law. 

Hence my second Western: on what basis does the committee claim that these documents--paid for by the taxpayer and representing the only official record of what is said during debate--are the members’ personal property?

My third question is why can’t Congress enact the simple solution by which it could cure the whole mess?  All it has to do is pass a resolution adopting the practice that has been followed by the Canadian and British Parliament’s four decades: insist that all words spoken on the floor be recorded verbatim in the record:.  No additions, no subtractions.

I know the congressional interests in this idea is about 0.  Almost four years ago, however, the House began televising its sessions, and this has helped the situation a bit  And there’s now a move to let TV into the Senate chamber, to--“in view of the abuses of the Congressional record and in the interest of keeping the American people accurately informed as to what we debated and decided,” in Sen. Goldwater’s words.

Television was, in fact, the mechanism by which Rostenkowski’s maneuvering was exposed.  Four months after passage of the block-lung benefits bill reporter went with Rep. DougWalgren to the Library of Congress, got a copy of the soundtrack of Rostenkowski’s remarks, and found that the record had indeed been faked (the Tellico double shuffle was exposed the same way.)

Why should the reporter for the average citizen be forced to invest so much time and effort in getting the truth?

I realize, Senator, that you’re one of the leaders of a growing number of senators who favor letting TV cameras into your chamber, but since one advantage of bringing in  TV would be to counteract the records’ distortions, I have a better suggestion: why not just make the record honest?

So that is my final question: would the committee be willing to support a resolution calling for a shift to the British system of printing verbatim all words spoken on the floor?

I look forward to your reply and I hope other readers of this letter will write asking you to share your answer with them as well.

Respectfully yours,

James Nathan Miller

Now all that has changed with C-span documenting all the secessions now they have moved to literally ‘secret’ actions on bills.  Discussions are carried on in closed rooms, away from the cameras.