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Mute Swan Feathers Shows Congress the Way

March 23, 2009

Every spring I am struck by our little mute swan Feathers who goes to work at this time of the year dutifully building a beautiful big nest down by the pond.

The reason it’s such a wonder is that Feathers doesn’t have a swan mate. Apparently he is bred to perform this arduous task year after year - it’s part of his being - his state of existence -- it’s a law of nature that has been passed down for centuries.

This is what male swans do - they build nests.

So it is that I’ve also been struck by the public discussion and recent outrage from television pundits and ordinary citizens who are surprised to learn that sometimes members of Congress do not read the bills they are about to vote on.

To clarify the issue - members of Congress rarely - if ever - actually read the bills they are to vote on. Like a swan building a nest - how congressmen vote is a phenomenon that has been passed down from legislator to legislator for decades - and it’s the same for all political species - Republican or Democrat - veteran or freshman.

The issue of legislators reading the bills came into question as part of the recent revelation that million dollar bonuses for employees of failed insurance giant American International Group (AIG) were attached to legislation passed by Congress.

Most believe that if members of Congress had read the bill - the AIG bonus language would have been taken out.

Unfortunately, members of Congress routinely do not read the bills - and the truth is they have little interest or time to sit in solitude and read the language of pending legislation that is about to be voted on.

A Congressman is inundated daily with the mundane tasks of simply keeping up with public demand for his/her time - and this takes precedence over everything else - including reading the bills.

The ways of Washington are all too familiar for those who work there - Congressmen must greet visiting constituents on a daily basis; attend Capitol Hill functions sponsored by special interest groups (whose members consist of voters from the member’s district); select office interns and help constituent job seekers; answer mail from key constituents; manage a 27-member congressional staff; continue fundraising and re-election planning; participate in photo ops on the Capitol steps with key constituents; meet with members of the local media; assist in scheduling White House tours for visiting constituents; attend their committee hearings; and the list goes on.

Setting aside personal quiet time for the purpose of reading legislation does not make the cut.

Instead members rely on a type of "cliff notes" summary of pending legislation that is written by the respective Republican and Democrat caucuses - delivered to member offices each morning - but these usually do not go directly to the congressman - but to his/her staff.

Members ask their staff, colleagues, and party leadership for guidance on how to vote. In fact, when the 15-minute bell rings signaling a congressional vote - members are often seen on their cell phones talking to staff to get the details on what it is they are soon going to be voting for.

Congressmen do rely on their own set of political principals and intuition to guide them on voting, and it is worthwhile to discuss legislation with colleagues, staff, constituents, and party leadership. But only a bill’s concepts are known by these people - not specific details. Reading the bill is the only way to uncover unwanted language in legislation that could spell big trouble.

So it is that much can be learned from our swan Feathers - who goes about building a beautiful empty nest - year after year - because that’s what he knows to do.

Congress too has learned its ways - and little has changed year after year.