How to hack the US government
December 13, 2009, 3:41 pm
Filed under: Legislative Choke-Point, Social Hacking

Now that I have all the NSA-bots attention, I’d like to say I’m talking about social hacking (or engineering, if you prefer) and not breaking through Pentagon firewalls or other illegal things.  I’m saving posts like that for later.

Like all hacking, this relies on exploiting a complex and not often very well understood rule-set, in order to make the larger processes do something they really shouldn’t.  In this case, it is accomplished by having control over the House and Senate Rules Committees.

Matt Taibbi explains further:

The House Rules Committee is perhaps the free world’s outstanding bureaucratic abomination ─ a tiny, airless closet deep in the labyrinth of the Capitol where some of the very meanest people on earth spend their days cleaning democracy like a fish. The official function of the committee is to decide which bills and amendments will be voted on by Congress and also to schedule the parameters of debate. If Rules votes against your amendment, your amendment dies. If you control the Rules Committee, you control Congress.

The committee has nine majority members and four minority members. But in fact, only one of those thirteen people matters. Unlike on most committees, whose chairmen are usually  chosen on the basis of seniority, the Rules chairman is the appointee of the Speaker of the House.


Shortly after Sanders finishes  his remarks, the Rules Committee members scurry to begin what will be a very long night of work. To most everyone outside those nine majority members, what transpires in the committee the night before a floor vote  is a mystery on the order of the identity of Jack the Ripper or the  nature of human afterlife. Even the Democrats who sit on the committee have only a vague awareness of what goes on. “They can completely rewrite bills,” says McGovern. “Then they take it to the floor an hour later. Nobody knows what’s in those bills.”

One singular example of this came  four years ago, when the Judiciary Committee delivered the first Patriot Act to the Rules Committee for its consideration. Dreier trashed that version of the act, which had been put together by the bipartisan committee, and replaced it with a completely different bill that had been written by John Ashcroft’s Justice Department.

The bill went to the floor a few hours later, where it passed into law. The Rules Committee is supposed to wait out a three-day period before sending the bill to the House, ostensibly in order to give the members a chance to read the bill. The three-day period is only supposed to be waived in case of emergency. However, the Rules Committee of DeLay and Dreier waives the three-day period as a matter of routine. This forces members of Congress to essentially cast blind yes-or-no votes to bills whose contents are likely to be an absolute mystery to them.

There is therefore an element of Christmas morning in each decision of the committee. On the day of a floor vote, you look under the tree (i.e., the Rules Committee Web site) and check to see if your amendment survived. And so, on the morning of July 21st, Sanders’ staff goes online and clicks on a link H.R. 3199 ─ USA PATRIOT AND TERRORISM PREVENTION REAUTHORIZATION ACT OF 2005. Twenty of sixty-three amendments have survived, most of them inconsequential. The Sanders amendment isn’t one of them.
– Matt Taibbi, Smells Like Dead Elephants, pages 26-33

The only problem is, of course, getting the Speaker of the House to approve you to be chairman.  However, when you consider how much competition there is for more lucrative positions (such as the House Committee on Appropriations) where an elected official can really steal, the Rules committee, by contrast has much less to offer, at least to the sort of politician who goes into politics to line their own pocket.  For an ideologue, on the other hand…with a little work, you can forcibly stamp your own vision of what should and shouldn’t be on the United States for years to come, with almost no oversight at all.


3 Comments so far
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I just placed an order for this book. Thanks for the write-up, Cain.

Comment by Pinko

So, what I’m hearing is, if you hold the chair of the House and Senate Rules Committees in your hand, you have power over the social implications of all new federal legislation in this country.

My next question is this: Who are the current chairs of these committees, and how can I/we influence them?

Comment by Kai

No problem Pinko.

Kai, pretty much. If you want to be a complete asshole about it, like the previous Republican Congress was, then you can pretty much do as you please.

Louise Slaughter heads up the House Committee, and she seems fairly inoffensive, in a Daily Kos-esque way. Chuck Schumer is the Chair of the Senate Committee though, and he is an asshole, of the pro Iraq War/AIPAC/pro-Mukasey kind.

As for influencing them…well, unless you’re a lobbyist, or the Speaker of the House, there isn’t a way.

Comment by Cain Aerte

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