ACES Up Her Sleeve

Well before Barack Obama brought hope to the White House, Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi was adamant that something new and different and wonderful had arrived. In 2006, the incoming Speaker pledged that hers would be the "most honest, most open, and most ethical Congress in history."

At the time, we were skeptical — to say the least. Our refusal to accept her rhetoric was roundly vindicated last week. That was when Madam-Speaker used every dirty trick at her disposal to coldly ram a 1,500 page global warming bill through the House of Representatives.

The Speaker chose to stifle the usual observances of deliberative democracy because open, honest debate would have attracted unwelcome scrutiny to her massive new energy tax.

Pelosi's legislation, the American Clean Energy and Security (ACES) Act, would raise the price of hydrocarbon energy sources like coal and oil thought to cause global warming, but which power 85 percent — 85 percent! — of the economic production in America.

A large energy tax during a deep recession is a political cyanide pill that 44 of Pelosi's Democratic colleagues refused to swallow. That almost doomed the bill and in fact would have killed it outright Friday night if eight Republicans hadn't voted with the majority of Democrats. (The final vote was 219 to 212.)

Likely there would have been many more Democratic "no" votes if Madame-Speaker and Energy & Commerce chairman Henry Waxman didn't find creative ways to shorten or skip every step of that "How a Bill Becomes a Law" song.

When fighting between the Energy & Commerce and Agriculture committees over the bill grew too intense, the farm lobby was bought off as were a lot of other Democrats. In exchange for votes, Pelosi and Waxman wrote countless paybacks, favors, and concessions into the legislation — all without serious debate.

Indeed, House leadership crafted much of the ACES Act in secret behind closed doors. In the week before the final vote, it grew by a whopping 600 pages. Even that figure doesn't stress the urgent, secretive nature of the process. At 3:09 Friday morning, Waxman et al. introduced a 309-page "manager's amendment" to the legislation that was set for a vote later in the day.

Representatives would have had all of nine hours to study the text, assuming they went without sleep. The manager's amendment made even that impossible, because you had roughly 1,200 pages of text — containing, at last count, 397 new government regulations and 1,090 new economic mandates — followed by over 300 pages of text with no index that amended the previous legislation on paragraph by paragraph basis.

It would take a team of lawyers several days to sort out a mess like that.

We have to hand it to Oregon Republican Greg Waldren for his superb sense of understatement when he said he couldn't "imagine that anyone on this floor has read every word" of the ACES Act. That was the whole point of introducing the legislation under an extremely limited rule and only allowing three hours for debate on something that may take a good bite out of every American's pocketbook.

Pelosi and company had complained, rightly, that Republicans rushed some legislation through Congress. But her approach has been even less open to any kind of dissent than former Majority Leader Tom DeLay.

The "open" Congress that Pelosi promised back in 2006 would have allowed members of the House to voice their ideas about how to improve legislation. Fat chance. House leadership discarded all but one — that's right, one — of the 220 amendments submitted by House Republicans on the ACES Act, and allowed next to no time for debate. Georgia's Phil Gingrey complained on the House floor, "The Speaker and the Rules Committee have silenced the opposition."

They certainly tried to. If there's any silver lining to this, it's that congressional Republicans were incensed and unlikely to forget, or shut up about it. John Boehner used his privilege as Minority Leader to insist, over the befuddled objection of Waxman, on going past normal debate time limits and reading large chunks of the 11th hour amendment on the House floor.

And afterward, when Waxman requested unanimous consent to say a few celebratory words about his historic bill's passage, some Republican uttered those two magical words: "I object."