March 23, 2020 10:58AM

Keep Emergency Legislation Narrow and Focused

The Wall Street Journal reports:

From Boeing Co. to Verizon Communications, scores of U.S. companies and industries are furiously lobbying Congress to add measures to the Trump administration’s massive stimulus package to deal with the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic, some of which address issues that long predate the outbreak.…

But for some lobbyists, the package provides an opportunity to score wins for corporate clients and breathe new life into stalled policy proposals unrelated to the crisis.

That lobbying approach has taken hold in Washington in recent years as Congress has approved fewer major pieces of legislation. Each year, industry advocates try to add measures to unrelated bills that have momentum, such as must‐​pass annual bills to fund the federal government. Now lobbyists see the stimulus bill as an ideal piece of legislation to hitch a ride on.

It is ever thus. In February 2009 I wrote about the lobbying frenzy around the massive TARP and stimulus bills:

The $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), better known as the Wall Street bailout, was cooked up mostly in secret by the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve Board. But the bill was no sooner proposed than lobbyists started flooding Capitol Hill and the Treasury to get a piece of it.

Every company and industry wanted to be sure that it would be eligible for some of the money, and members of Congress worked to slip their constituents and campaign donors into the bill’s 451 pages. By the time it passed, it included special provisions for Puerto Rican rum producers, auto race tracks, and corporations operating in American Samoa (such as Starkist, which is headquartered in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s district). It required that insurance companies pay for mental health benefits and granted tax benefits for victims of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill and makers of children’s wooden arrows.…

Next up is the nearly‐​trillion‐​dollar stimulus bill. Don’t expect anything different. Already senators are pushing to get their pet projects and home‐​state interests into the measure.

What can we expect? With a federal budget headed toward $5 trillion even before the extraordinary spending now being contemplated, many companies and interest groups see a profit opportunity. It’s worth hiring platoons of lobbyists to get just a small, an infinitesimal, sliver of that pie.

It’s up to Congress and the administration to keep their eye on the ball—sustaining the economy during a sudden and unprecedented shutdown—and not turn it into a Christmas tree for lobbyists.

Perhaps most important in the current circumstances is to remember that this is emergency legislation to deal with an extraordinary and unprecedented situation. It should not become a vehicle for partisan, ideological, and special‐​interest agendas.

A Senate Republican aide says that Democrats are pushing to insert new collective bargaining powers for unions, increased fuel emissions standards for airlines, and expansion of wind and solar tax credits into the emergency bill. Democrats retort that Republicans added a provision to extend an abstinence education program due to expire. Those are all normal policy proposals in recent years. They should not be slipped into must‐​pass legislation by a handful of congressional negotiators without debate in committee, on the floor, and in public.

Congress should insist on a bill narrowly tailored to address the current crisis, not another sprawling lobbyists’ spectacular.