From time to time we see a news story about some government project or proposal that causes us to think, "That sure doesn't sound right," and wonder how it happened. Here's a current example:
I recently spotted the following summary of House Resolution 7252, introduced on October 2, 2008, by Representative William Clay (D-MO):
"To designate the structure of the Gateway Arch and the Old St. Louis Courthouse as National Historic Landmarks, to designate the grounds of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial surrounding the Arch for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places."
That seemed fairly innocuous, perhaps even a worthy action. What harm could come from this bill?
The answer is: a lot. A little further inquiry found that the devil is indeed in the details, in this case four short words that were omitted from the above summary, and which occur right at the end of the preamble to the bill: "…and for other purposes."
That phrase can be the mechanism for expanding the scope of legislation far beyond what is suggested in the opening sentence or two of a bill.
I've heard congressperson's lament more than once that the sheer volume of legislation makes it impossible for them to know all the details in every bill they vote on. That's a scary thought, and a weakness in our legislative process, but a reality. It also explains how a busy representative or senator could glance at the preamble to a bill such as this one, think it sounds reasonable, and vote for it without knowing they've just helped establish a significant precedent for the entire National Park System—and aided in the hijacking of a park by local special interests.
In this particular case, those "other purposes" include authority for the Secretary of the Interior to:
Enter into agreements with a private organization named the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial Trust;
Transfer one or more portions of park property to the administrative jurisdiction of the Trust; there are no limits on the amount and location of the property involved.
"Enter into an agreement with the Trust to facilitate the planning, construction, and operation of a cultural facility on Federal land within the boundary of the [park]," along with "... other terms and conditions the Secretary determines to be necessary."
Enter into agreements with the Trust to plan and develop the St. Louis riverfront in the vicinity of the park and the park itself as a "single project area.
The master plan for the project area …"shall be pursuant to international design competitions to be conducted by the Trust…"
"Enter into agreements with the Trust for such other facilities and services provided in the design competitions in furtherance of the purposes of this Act…"
(I've summarized some of the above text for clarity.)
There's more, but that gives you the idea. You can read the entire text of the bill here.
Here's my partial translation of the above: Control of an unspecified amount of park property will be handed over to a private group, which will conduct its own design competition to determine the details of an unspecified number of facilities to be built in the park. Future planning and development for the entire park will now become part of a larger plan for the surrounding waterfront area, and no longer under control of the park—or the taxpayers.
Oh…just in case the folks at the Trust haven't thought of everything they might need or want, don't forget the phrase that makes this Agreement virtually open-ended: "…and other terms and conditions the Secretary determines to be necessary." In the rest of the world, I believe that's sometimes referred to as a blank check.
So, what's going on here? This bill is the latest wrinkle in an on-going push by influential St. Louis citizens to develop the area in and around the "Gateway Arch" (Jefferson National Expansion Memorial). Their goal is to "revitalize the St. Louis waterfront" and draw more people and business to the area.
The running debate over this plan and whether this is an appropriate role for the park is described in a September 19, 2007, article in Traveler.
Irrespective of your opinions about the park and its role in the local economy, this attempt to hand over control of both park property and the park planning process to a private organization is certainly inappropriate—and a dangerous precedent for the entire National Park System.
This bill has been referred to the House Committee on Natural Resources, and some may say, "Don't worry. The House is in recess until January 3rd unless otherwise notified."
Remember, however, that Congress can be "notified" to return at any time before the end of the year. During such lame-duck sessions, all manner of mischief can be attempted by politicians who combine a hodgepodge of bills into one or more "omnibus" bills, or simply attach provisions such as this one as a rider to a completely unrelated larger measure. (And you thought it was hard to figure out what might be lurking in a single bill…)
Don't count this bill dead, even if it doesn't slip through in a post-election special session. Look for it to be reintroduced after the first of the year if need be.
And … beware of those catch-all bills. They can help eliminate a legislative logjam, but history has also shown that special interests won't hesitate to use them to throw responsible government under the omnibus.