Worst Congress Ever: Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi on How Our National Legislature Has Become a “Stable of Thieves and Perverts”

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Rolling Stone contributing editor Matt Taibbi takes an in-depth look at the outgoing 109th Congress in his article, “The Worst Congress Ever.” In it, Taibbi writes that over the past six years, “The U.S. parliament became a historical punch line, a political obscenity on par with the court of Nero or Caligula — a stable of thieves and perverts who committed crimes rolling out of bed in the morning and did their very best to turn the mighty American empire into a debt-laden, despotic backwater, a Burkina Faso with cable.” [includes rush transcript]

With just over a week left to Election Day, the mainstream media is focusing on key contests and issues that are shaping this year’s mid-term elections. Control of the House and Senate is up for grabs in what many describe as the most pivotal battle for Congress in over a decade.

Whatever the outcome, the 110th United States Congress will open session on January 3rd, 2007. While the country’s attention remains focused on the upcoming elections, few are considering the current state of the legislative branch. How did the 109th Congress perform?

The cover story of this week’s issue of Rolling Stone magazine takes on that issue. The article is “The Worst Congress Ever: How our national legislature has become a stable of thieves and perverts — in five easy steps.” It’s written by Matt Tabbi, a contributing editor for the magazine. He joins us in the firehouse studio.

  • Matt Taibbi, contributing editor for Rolling Stone Magazine. He is author of “Spanking the Donkey: Dispatches from the Dumb Season.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Whatever the outcome, the 110th U.S. Congress will open session on January 3, 2007. While the country’s attention remains focused on the upcoming elections, few are considering the current state of the legislative branch. How did the 109th Congress perform? Well, the cover story of this week’s Rolling Stone magazine takes on that issue. The article is called “The Worst Congress Ever: How Our National Legislature Has Become a Stable of Thieves and Perverts — In Five Easy Steps.” It’s written by Matt Taibbi, a contributing editor for the magazine. He joins us now in studio. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Matt.

MATT TAIBBI: Thanks for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: Why worst?

MATT TAIBBI: Well, there’s so many reasons why this is the worst. The easiest ones to talk about statistically, it’s just the mere laziness factor. You’ve heard of the famous Do-Nothing Congress from 1948. This congress smashed the record that was set by that congress for fewest days ever worked by a congress. That congress worked a total of 249 days, between the House and the Senate. This congress worked 218 days total, so they beat that record by a month. And even those 218 days were made up of a lot of fragmentary days. So the House, for instance, had nine days that were less than eleven minutes long, and the Senate had three days less than one minute. So, this is easily the laziest congress of all time, if nothing else.

JUAN GONZALEZ: But when they are in session, they’ve done quite a bit to change the way the Congress operates, right? I mean, what about the rules changes that you talk about in your article?

MATT TAIBBI: Well, there’s been a lot of changes just in the way that bills get heard and bills get talked about. One of the things that this congress has done is drastically reduce the number of what’s called “open rules,” and open rules are bills that make it to the House floor in a form that allows congressmen to debate them and offer amendments to them. There was a time back in the late '70s when about 75% of the bills that made it to the floor were open rules. Now, it should be said that that number continued to decline while the Democrats still controlled Congress. By the time the Democrats ceded control in ’94, that number was about 30%. This year, there were no open rules, except for appropriations bills, which are always open. So, we've basically seen the last of those kinds of openly debated bills in Congress.

AMY GOODMAN: “Rule by cabal,” what do you mean?

MATT TAIBBI: Well, the Republicans have basically figured out a way to totally exclude the minority from the process. You know, obviously if you have the majority in Congress, you’re going to have most of the influence anyway. But traditionally, in Congress, there’s been a power-sharing agreement. Bills were usually made up in session between the minority and the majority, and the two parties always worked together to make up major legislation. That’s done now in Congress; that doesn’t happen anymore.

A great example is that conference committees, where when you have the conference that hammers out the differences between the Senate and the House versions of bills, traditionally both parties work in that conference committee to create the final version of the bill. Well, this congress has sort of pioneered a new method of handling the conferences. What they’ll do is they’ll have — by law, they have to have one conference that includes Democrats. They’ll have a five-minute meeting, where the Democrats are there. They’ll take a picture, and then they’ll kick the Democrats out, and they’ll hold the real meeting later, and they won’t tell the Democrats where it is. And you get this situation that results — it’s really like, you know, an elementary school thing, where they won’t tell the Democrats where it is, so the Democratic minority member will have to go around Congress literally searching for the conference, knocking on doors, saying, “Are you inside?”

AMY GOODMAN: Give us an example.

MATT TAIBBI: There was a famous example, where the Ways and Means Committee, chaired by Bill Thomas, the congressman from California, he didn’t tell the ranking minority member, who was Charlie Rangel here from New York, he didn’t tell him where the conference was, and Rangel went around the Congress looking for this conference, knocking on doors, and he finally finds it. He knocks on the door, and the Republicans hid behind the door, pretending that they weren’t inside, literally, like little kids. They hid in there. You know, one congressional aide said it was like the old SNL skit, “Land Shark,” where Charlie Rangel was the land shark, the Republicans wouldn’t open the door.

They finally opened it, and Thomas says to Rangel, he says, “Sorry, this is only for the coalition of the willing,” and he basically kicked Rangel out of the room — actually, I’m sorry, they packed up their stuff, and they left, and they held the conference someplace else. And this kind of stuff happens at every level, at every stage of the congressional process now. So, everywhere where you used to have meetings between the two parties, where they would work things out, the Republicans just disallow participation by the Democrats.

JUAN GONZALEZ: In your article, you paint a portrait of many of these congressional staffers that are just sort of lost, now the Democratic staffers with nothing to do, and they haven’t seen the sun in seven years, you say, some of them. What’s the impact on the Democrats of this kind of a total, not just embarrassment, but —

MATT TAIBBI: Humiliation?

JUAN GONZALEZ: — humiliation? Yes.

MATT TAIBBI: Yeah, it’s completely changed the way that Congress does business, and this is something that’s difficult to quantify. But again, Congress used to be a collegial place. It used to be a place where Democrats and Republicans, they may be different ideologically, but they used to hang out together on the weekends. They used to play golf, you know, together on the weekends, and that was where a lot of things got worked out socially, was outside of Congress. They would have lunch together, and they would socialize together with their wives. That doesn’t happen anymore. And there’s a complete antipathy now between the parties to a degree that the new generation, even of Democrats, doesn’t even understand the theory of communicating with the Republicans about things.

Rangel, this congressman from New York, tells a great story about how — I guess it was last year — he went up to talk to Clay Shaw, who is a Republican from Florida, and he had heard that Shaw was sick, and he wanted to go and pay his respects to him, and he goes and says hello to Shaw on the other end of the floor, and when Rangel gets back, one of the young Democrats leans over to him, and he goes, “What the hell was that about?” You know? In other words, the young Democrats don’t even understand why you would talk to a Republican, even socially. And this is — so you have the new generation of congressmen that doesn’t even know how to work together.

AMY GOODMAN: Matt Taibbi, what happened when the Democrats wanted to have a hearing on the PATRIOT Act?

MATT TAIBBI: Well, again, this is another way that they exclude Democrats from the process. You know, typically congressmen are allowed to hold hearings. Even the minority members of a committee are allowed to hold hearings whenever you want to. But the Republican chairmen have decided to make it as difficult as possible for Democrats to do this. So, in this instance, the Democrats wanted to hold a meeting on the PATRIOT Act in the Judiciary Committee, so they asked James Sensenbrenner, who is the chairman — he’s this famously dictatorial congressman from Wisconsin — and he said, “Yeah, sometime in the future,” but he didn’t tell them when.

Then, one Thursday night, late on Thursday night, he says, “Okay, you’re on for tomorrow morning at 9:00.” So the Democrats have to scramble all their witnesses, get everything prepared overnight, but they do. They get everything done, and by 9:00 the next morning, they’re ready to hold their hearing. Well, they start having their hearing, and Sensenbrenner decides that he’s bored and he wants to leave, and he tries to gavel the hearing to a close before everyone’s done. The Democrats said, “No, we’re not finished.” So Sensenbrenner, that wasn’t good enough for him, so he literally got up, walked across the room, shut the lights off, shut the microphones off, and closed the door behind him, leaving the Democrats with all their witnesses, which included people from groups like Amnesty International and other groups, just sitting there in the dark. You know, again, this is stuff that you would expect in an elementary school, you know, not in the Congress. I used to live in Russia. Even the Duma wasn’t this bad, you know?

JUAN GONZALEZ: And the impact of this, first of all, in terms of how much of the American people know about these operations and how they’ve been going now for the past few years, and the impact on the legislation that comes out?

MATT TAIBBI: Well, I think the American people just don’t have any idea of what congressional procedure is like. If they knew the way that laws were made — or not made, in most cases —- I think, you know, you might have people storming the Bastille, you know. What’s happened in Congress now is that the process is completely corrupted. In other words, almost everything is a backroom deal now. There are no open debates, no open hearings. Anything you see on C-SPAN is all for show, because the important decisions are all made in backrooms, in committee. And what happens in these committee hearings behind the scenes is that, you know, the public sees one bill, but then the night before the bill goes to be voted on, the Republicans who actually make the decisions gather together, and they take a bill that’s about this thick, and they make it about this thick. And what they do is -—

AMY GOODMAN: Much thicker, for the radio listeners.

MATT TAIBBI: Much thicker. Right, yeah. And what they’re doing is they’re shoving earmarks in there. And what earmarks are, for people who don’t know, are little tiny provisions in a bill that are usually favors of some kind, projects, you know, highway bills, new public works projects, and it’s basically a gift to the congressman’s district. And we’ve seen an explosion of these earmarks over the years.

Take the energy bill. In the Clinton years, the last energy bill had 6,000 earmarks in it. In the Bush years, it had 15,000. So, you know, these are things that are never voted on in committee, that you never see debated, and it’s all done behind the scenes. It’s not democracy anymore. It’s — you know, it’s basically like an authoritarian system.

AMY GOODMAN: You mentioned laziness before. What about laziness in the appropriations bills? How does that work?

MATT TAIBBI: Well, this congress has failed to pass — there are eleven appropriations bills every year. This congress has failed to pass more than three on time in any year since Bush has been elected, which doesn’t sound like that big a deal, because when you don’t pass your appropriations bill, you just pass a continuing resolution and everything gets funded anyway.

There are two problems with that. When you don’t pass appropriations bills on time, what ends up happening is that they end up dumping everything from all the remaining unpassed appropriations bills into one giant omnibus bill that gets passed usually in the last two days of the congressional year. So you have these congressmen who haven’t passed the appropriations bills, they show up. They’re two days away from their Christmas vacation, and then they get literally an 8,000-page bill, lands on their desk, you know, on their last working day of the year, and nobody knows what’s in these bills — nobody, not even, in most cases, the people who wrote them don’t even know.

And you find the most — so the staffers have to go through these bills and race through them to make sure there isn’t some egregious violation in there. One staffer told me a story of an amazing thing that he discovered in an omnibus bill just before it was about to be passed. It was a provision that would have allowed the Appropriations Committee to look at the private information of any taxpayer in this country, the private tax return information, which is supposed to be only for the eyes of the IRS, but they were going to put a provision in that made it possible for just the members of the Appropriations Committee to see that information. And, you know, it was just something that was buried in this giant bill. And this is the kind of stuff that happens when you don’t pass things on time.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And in terms of the prospects now, if there is a change in this congress, do you expect that some of the processes that have now taken hold will continue, even if there’s a Democratic majority?

MATT TAIBBI: Well, there’s a real fear in Congress that a lot of these new processes are not going to change if the Democrats take control of the Congress, and the Democrats themselves are worried about that, because they don’t know. You know, things have changed since 1994, when the Democrats last controlled the Congress. There’s so much more money involved in the process now. There are so many more campaign contributors, and they figured out so many new ways to get to the congressmen, you know, like with these golf junkets that you hear about with Jack Abramoff and that kind of thing, lobbyists writing legislation for the congressmen.

You know, all of this stuff has come as a result of an explosion of money that’s come into the Congress in the last decade or so, and the Democrats, frankly, are worried, because they don’t know how their own members are going to react to it, so this is going to be something that’s going to be interesting to watch, when the Democrats, if they do take control. Also, it’s not known whether they’re going to want to exact revenge on the Republicans and exclude them to the degree that the Republicans excluded them in the last six years or so.

AMY GOODMAN: What about Congress being a check and balance on the executive branch, on the President, how it has changed?

MATT TAIBBI: Yeah, not anymore. This is probably the most disgusting thing about this congress, if you can imagine that there’s a most disgusting thing. But the congress in the Clinton years, which is mostly the same Republican congress, they issued over a thousand subpoenas to the Clinton administration during Clinton’s time in office. Since Bush has come into office, they haven’t issued a single subpoena to the Bush White House. They have issued a few to the Bush administration, but not to the White House.

And this is a time period where we’ve seen some extraordinary things happen that should have been investigated, you know, from the misuse of intelligence to get us into Iraq, to failure to act appropriately before 9/11, to Katrina, to all these things, to the Valerie Plame incident. These are all things that would have been investigated in the past, and they’re not being investigated now.

And what you have as a result of that is a body that’s bureaucratically castrated. They just no longer have any will or any ability to stand up to the executive branch for any reason. And this is a dangerous situation for this country. You know, the Congress exists to act as a check on the power of the executive branch, and they’re not doing it anymore.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you see, in this next two years, that changing? I mean, if the Democrats were to take over, would you see this spate of investigations and money poured into it?

MATT TAIBBI: I think you probably will. I think the Democrats, if they get control of the — especially if they get control of both houses, I think you’re going to see a lot of investigation into some of the activities of the Bush White House. But, unfortunately, that’s not the best test of how the Congress is going to operate. I think if it was a Democratic president and the Democrats were in control, we need to see that they would investigate their own.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And what about all these corruption scandals that have erupted in the last couple of years? What’s been the impact of that on business as usual there?

MATT TAIBBI: Well, again, that’s a terrible thing. And, you know, there have only been a few indictments, you know, related to the Jack Abramoff incident, but we know that at least twelve congressmen, Republican congressmen, did favors for Jack Abramoff, wrote letters for him or got things introduced into the congressional record, and that’s probably just the tip of the iceberg. I mean, the amount of money that goes into congressional fundraising — I think there was $13 million donated to congressional campaigns last year, and that includes both parties.

When you consider that — there was an incident, for instance, when a company called Weststar wanted to get a provision put into the energy bill, and internal company documents were released, emails saying that they had been told by Republican leaders that they needed to donate $58,000 to the Congress to get this provision passed. When you consider that $58,000 is the cost for a single favor, and the energy bill — over $115 million from energy companies were donated to Republican politicians that year — that tells you that a lot of favors are being bought in this congress.

And so, it’s known in Congress that if you want to get something into a bill, you just have to pay for it. And, you know, congressmen openly talk about this, and it’s a total corruption of the system. And I think it’s something that even the congressmen are very depressed about, that they know that as soon as they get elected, they have to start raising money again, and that’s what they have to think about all the time. And I think a lot of the congressmen would like to have publicly financed campaigns or some way of avoiding having to make these decisions.

AMY GOODMAN: Matt Taibbi, you covered the Howard Dean campaign, you covered the John Kerry campaign. What do you expect in these midterm elections?

MATT TAIBBI: Well, I expect that the Democrats are going to make significant gains. I just got back from Ohio, where I covered the Jean Schmidt-Victoria Wulsin campaign, and she is running in a district where the Republicans have held control for all but ten years of the century, and it’s been traditionally a safe district, but it’s up for grabs now. And I think actually Wulsin is going to win, the Democrat, which tells me that if the Republicans are losing traditionally safe districts, that there’s going to be significant defections this time around. But most people expect that these are going to be temporary defections, that it’s just anger at the incumbency, and that two years from now we’re probably going to see a return to a Republican majority, but I think the Democrats are going to win at least the House this time around.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And why would there be that sense that this would be only a temporary swing?

MATT TAIBBI: Because I think people are angry at this particular batch of Republicans who are in the Congress right now, but I don’t see a significant shift in attitudes, you know, against conservative politics in these places. I think they’re just angry at this particular group of people. And I also think that there’s a lot of people who feel that this particular group of Republicans has betrayed traditional conservative values. And I think what you’re going to see in the next two years is a new spate of Republicans who are back to sort of traditional fiscal conservatism and away from the hot-button social issues that got a lot of these guys elected.

AMY GOODMAN: Matt Taibbi, I want to thank you very much for being with us. The piece that he wrote in the latest issue of Rolling Stone is called “The Worst Congress Ever.” Thanks.

MATT TAIBBI: Thank you very much.

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