Weekend open thread: Dangerous consensus edition

Most political junkies love a good brawl. While Congress-watchers were paying attention to fights this week over the president’s proposed budget, confirming federal judges, or tightening up gun ownership regulations, a non-controversial but significant bill zoomed through the U.S. House and Senate.  

Niels Lesniewski reported for Roll Call on April 11,

With most of the Senate’s attention focused on guns and immigration, the Senate quietly acted to dramatically scale back the reach of the law’s most contentious provision. Absent Congressional action or a court order, the law known as the STOCK Act requiring online publication of financial information for a slew of federal employees would take effect next week.

The Senate bill passed Thursday by unanimous consent goes beyond a simple delay. If passed by the House and signed by President Barack Obama, the measure would exclude legislative and executive staffers from having their financial disclosure forms posted on the Internet. The new reporting requirements would still apply to the president, vice president, members of Congress, congressional candidates and individuals subject to Senate confirmation.

Congress approved the Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge (STOCK) Act in 2012 to prevent insider trading by members of Congress, other federal officials, and their staffs. Iowa’s five U.S. House representatives and two senators all supported the bill.

The drive to repeal disclosure requirements for staff came after a report on the STOCK Act came out in late March:

“Virtually all the cybersecurity, national security, and law enforcement experts interviewed during this study noted that making this information available in this fashion fundamentally transforms the ability (and the likelihood) of others – individuals, organizations, nation-states – to exploit that information for criminal, intelligence, and other purposes,” the report said.

Within a few weeks, a bill was drawn up and passed with no hearings, floor debate or roll call votes in the Senate or House. Emily Pierce reported for Roll Call on April 12,

House and Senate leaders were spurred to action by a scathing report detailing the national security dangers that could come from a provision added in the Senate. But instead of touting those reasons, both chambers attempted to keep the process quiet in an apparent attempt to avoid the political vulnerability that could come from instituting less transparency in government.

Both chambers passed the bill by unanimous consent after leaders in both parties and the White House refused to answer CQ Roll Call’s questions about the process all week.

Pierce cited a federal court filing, which indicated that President Barack Obama will sign the bill.

I haven’t studied the issues surrounding the STOCK Act. This bill may be a reasonable step to address certain problems. By the same token, it could enable the kind of insider dealing that inspired the STOCK Act in the first place. I’m suspicious of legislation that passes without any public debate or a roll call vote that can be pinned on individual members of Congress. As Roll Call reporter Steven Dennis commented, “We’ve learned one thing Congress can can do with lightning speed, no debate & no actual voting: Repeal a piece of the STOCK Act.”

Iowa politics-watchers have been treated to lots of public battles during this legislative session. Despite the intense disagreements over education funding, Medicaid expansion, and confirmation of Board of Regents nominees, the Iowa House and Senate have agreed on some bills with little public debate.

In today’s edition of the Sunday Des Moines Register, editors gave a “thistle” to legislators for passing one bill easily this session.

A thistle to the Iowa Legislature for asking a question but ignoring the answer. The House and Senate both passed a bill that increases the penalty for interference with the official duties of a law officer that results in an injury to the officer. The tougher penalty likely will have a disproportionate impact on minorities in Iowa. Lawmakers know that because the Legislative Services Agency was specifically asked to prepare minority-impact statement on the bill due to Iowa’s sorry record of locking up blacks at a higher rate proportionally than whites. Yet, the bill sailed through the Senate 50-zip. At least the House seriously debated the race implications before it passed the bill. Lawmakers might as well not ask for reports on the impact of their actions if they do not intend to take seriously the results.

Radio Iowa’s O.Kay Henderson reported on the Iowa House debate over this bill, Senate File 384, on April 11. Click here to find the audio file. The bill passed by 77 votes to 17 (roll call here). You can view the lobbyist declarations on this bill here. The Iowa House Democrats who voted against this bill were Ako Abdul-Samad, Marti Anderson, Deborah Berry, Ruth Ann Gaines, Bruce Hunter, Vicki Lensing, Mary Mascher, Kevin McCarthy, Pat Murphy, Jo Oldson, Rick Olson, Todd Prichard, Sharon Steckman, Todd Taylor, Beth Wessel-Kroeschell, Cindy Winckler, and Mary Wolfe.

It’s not the first time Iowa lawmakers overwhelmingly agreed on a bad idea. A few years ago, a bill eliminating fines against nursing homes for various health and safety violations passed the Iowa House and Senate unanimously. A couple of years before that, the film tax credit that wasted a lot of state money and eventually led to some criminal indictments passed by 95 votes to 1 in the Iowa House and 48 to 2 in the Iowa Senate.

High-profile, contentious bills grab attention by prompting press conferences, rallies and public hearings. But consensus bills influence public policy too–not always for the better.

Some political scientists believe divided control of a legislature is ideal, because gridlock prevents either party from overreaching. But failure to act on high-profile, contentious bills doesn’t mean nothing important is happening. Political consensus is

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