How Dumb is Congress?

Sep 20th, 2009 | By | Category: Columns, Opinions

by Jason McGill

Last Thursday, a funny thing happened in our House of Representatives.

The House passed an amendment to a bill saying no federal funds may ever go to the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, otherwise known as ACORN.  ACORN itself is an umbrella organization of groups that help the poor, including doing voter registration drives, helping people access benefits, find jobs and housing, etc.  You may have heard some insane rhetoric about ACORN being Obama’s shock troops or whatever, as if the poor and powerless are a threat.  As if there is a threat to this country outside Wall Street.

Nevermind that Wall Street has an open account at the treasury, measuring in the trillions, and ACORN has received 53 million dollars from the federal government over the past fifteen years. Stack a handful of fraudulent voter registrations (which are bad) against the hundreds of millions of our money poured on K Street by Goldman Sachs and AIG, and you tell me which one has more influence on our political discourse.

So what’s funny about this amendment?

First of all, federal money isn’t distributed to individual organizations by Congress itself.  It’s not as if someone in Congress decides the United Way gets X amount, Raytheon gets Y amount, etc.  They have competitive bids for projects, or sometimes hand out no bid contracts.  But the budgeting and contracting is done by the agencies or states receiving the cash, not the Congress itself. For example, the State Department, not Congress, hired the Wackenhut guards that were recently caught drinking vodka out of each other’s butts.

The contracting process is supposed to be a level playing field, and the choice is supposed to be based on merit, not political affiliation.  The federal government has passed laws saying, for example, anyone receiving their dollars cannot practice discrimination in hiring and that sort of thing  But it’s highly irregular for them to order that their money not go to a specific organization.  (And there’s a good reason for this, as we’ll see below).

Now the Senate version of the this amendment is a little more tame.  It says that no organization under federal indictment can receive federal money, and “ACORN counts as an organization.”  Oh yeah, that’s actually in the amendment.  It specifically says an organization, ACORN, is an organization.  It doesn’t list all the organizations in the world to point out they are organizations.  Only ACORN is named, and for no apparent reason other than political spite and to confer perceived guilt of imagined crimes.

But the House bill outright says no money can go to ACORN.  It’s actually self defeating.  Time and effort will be wasted by other organizations trying to do the things ACORN was going to do anyway.  It’s not that Congress doesn’t want there to be free tax advice for the poor, it’s just dirty, filthy ACORN can’t be involved.

This is the reason money isn’t distributed directly by Congress, because insane political nonsense in Washington could seriously hamper efforts to spend the money effectively on the ground.  I thought the people who hated ACORN didn’t want Washington getting involved in local affairs.  Don’t we know best how to spend money, not Congress?

I know what you’re saying, “What the heck is funny about this?”  Remember PLS 101?  Here is a refresher:

Article I, Section 9 of the Constitution, Limits on Congress, forbids Congress to pass Bills of Attainder.  Article I, Section 10 also forbids the states to pass Bills of Attainder, so you know they are a big deal.  What are they?

Bill Of Attainder is a legislative Act which declares a person or group as guilty of any crime, there by ordering punishment to them, without allowing them a chance to represent their cause or an unbiased trial to determine whether they are guilty.

Remember innocent until proven guilty?  Bills of Attainder were a cute way for the legislature to circumvent annoying “due process” constraints in the courts.  They would simply declare people criminals and punish them.

Bear in mind ACORN isn’t even under investigation, let alone under indictment, let alone convicted of anything.  People who in ACORN organizations were submitting fraudulent voter registrations in the past and it was ACORN who turned them in.  Even if they were under indictment now, they are innocent until proven guilty.  Even if convicted, Congress has no business singling them out in legislation.  Punishment is for the courts, not Congress.  Congress could only address all convicted groups as a class.  They can’t show preference or prejudice to this or that particular group.

Rep. Jerry Nadler of New York nailed it:

The Supreme Court has ruled a bill of attainder is a legislative act that, no matter what their form, applies either to named individuals or to easily ascertainable members of a group in such a way as to inflict punishment, and then without a judicial trial. That’s exactly what this amendment does.

It may be that ACORN is guilty of various infractions, and if so, it ought to be investigated, maybe sanctioned, whatever, by the appropriate administrative agency or maybe by the judiciary. Congress must not be in the business of punishing individual organizations or people without trial.

Eh, short sighted stupidity in Congress.  Violating the Constitution they claim to revere for the sake of scoring political points.  Not funny enough for you?

The amendment was passed and added to the House bill on September 17.

September 17?

The 222nd anniversary of the signing of the Constitution?  Constitution Day?

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  1. The reason for all the outrage against ACORN probably has something to do with the undercover video where an ACORN employee advises two filmmakers, posing as a pimp and prostitute, on how to evade taxes for their new “business.” The ACORN employee also tells them how to get a tax write off for housing young teens from another country who will be used for prostitution. Pretty sick stuff, especially coming from a group that receives our tax dollars. While you can’t judge a whole organization based on the acts of an individual, given other questionable acts by the group, I would say the outrage was justified.

    See part 1 of the undercover video here:

  2. Those employees were screwing around. The filmmakers had been to like 10 different ACORN places and didn’t get anything. The guy claiming to be the “pimp” was so obviously not a pimp that the employees went along with the gag. The video clips released were only a piece of what was recorded. I read the transcript. It’s so ridiculous that it’s hard to believe adults came up with this half-baked scheme. Plus, they may have violated Maryland law by recording without permission.

    In any event, the main point is that Congress shouldn’t be singling out any organization, no matter what they’ve done. It’s a violation of the Constitution. Is it not enough to say all organizations that have been under federal indictment are subject to being removed from the bidding process?

    Plus, let’s calibrate our outrage. ACORN didn’t cause the housing bubble or raise unemployment to 9.5 percent. This story is so sensationalized, it’s hardly worth discussing. The significance, I think, is how serious Congress seems to think it is.

  3. The congressional vote against ACORN is symbolic. It is a very strong signal from Congress to America that ACORN is toast.

    This is not an isolated incident with a few bad apples. This is about a long standing pattern of corruption where probes into misconduct have been blocked by powerful politicians.

    Using attainder as a defense for ACORN is laughable at best. It will take some time for due process to run its course.

  4. […] mainstream media of course, are now so outraged by the actions of a handful of ACORN employees that Congress is now bravely cutting off all funding for this already underfunded, inconsequential organization.  Yet the recent — nearly […]

  5. This action by Congress isn’t symbolic. If the bill makes it through, it will have real consequences (if it’s not struck down in the courts).

    It’s less about defending ACORN and more about defending everyone’s right to due process, our protection against Congress singling people out for punishment to score political points. It’s a dangerous precedent to let media attention drive legislative decisions. There is enough mob mentality already in law making. That’s why the prohibition against bills of attainder was put in the Constitution, twice. So people convicted by public opinion could still enjoy protection under the law.

    We disagree about ACORN, that’s why it should be up to the courts, not Congress, to sort it out.


    70 ACORN employees have been convicted of crimes committed in the course of their work for ACORN and that ”numerous investigations, indictments, and prosecutions currently pending against ACORN and its staff throughout the nation.”

  7. […] up on my column, “How Dumb is Congress?” I found that Laura Flanders has taken the idea of preventing an organizations under […]