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September 20, 2006

Guarding the Borders and Coasts

Welcome to the Sept 10-17 issue of Last Week in Congress.

“Government doesn’t work.” This was the message of the late Harry Browne, co-founder of Because government doesn’t work, we want to shrink it. Because government doesn’t work, we want it out of our lives.

And because government doesn’t work, we’re skeptical of projects and programs that might even seem sensible. For example, we expect the federal government to provide for the common defense, but we shouldn’t rubber stamp every Defense Department budget request. Legitimate security concerns shouldn’t excuse waste, fraud, and abuse.

Border security is a legitimate concern, and immigration is a complicated topic. Some oppose immigration because they are not crazy about a growing immigrant voting bloc that supports Big Government candidates. Others fear the Southwest will secede and unite with stagnant, unfree Mexico. And then there is the fear that the borders will be abolished in order to form a North American Union and another layer of government.

On the other hand, “people prohibition” doesn’t sound any more desirable or effective than any other form of government prohibition. Instead, it might just create another layer of illegality, and greater profits for smugglers and other criminals. Moreover, it is arbitary and unjust to let an imaginary line in the sand prevent people on one side from going over to the other to work, live, and do business.

We are skeptical that beefed-up border controls will work any better than any other government program. We have doubts about fences and other measures to keep immigrants out. Will they work? Will they be cost-effective? Will they just cause more problems elsewhere? And are they even desirable? DC Downsizers have honest disagreements over these issues.

That is why some of you will applaud, and some will oppose, H.R. 6061, the Secure Fence Act of 2006. The 8-page bill calls for building two layers of reinforced fencing through the most popular areas of entry for illegal immigrants, and for greater surveillance and additional checkpoints elsewhere on the borders and coasts.

But what is the cost? Reading the bill, I didn’t see any funds allocated for these projects. Whether or not one agrees with the substance of the bill, this is most disturbing.

In other House news, our Representatives passed H.R. 2965, the 82-page Federal Prison Industries Competition in Contracting Act of 2006. The stated purpose of this bill is to “require Federal Prison Industries to compete for its contracts, minimizing its unfair competition with private sector firms and their non-inmate workers and empowering Federal agencies to get the best value for taxpayers’ dollars,” and other reform involving federal prison labor.” If this saves money, I’m all for it.

I’ll also note one bill that failed, the 10-page H.R. 4893, the Restricting Indian Gaming to Homelands of Tribes Act of 2006. Indian gaming has been tainted by scandal for years. Bill Clinton’s Interior Secretary Bruce Babbit suffered from an Independent Counsel investigation because of it. Jack Abramoff’s legal troubles centered around his role as a lobbyist for Indian tribes with gaming interests. Such scandals could have been avoided had Congress just sat down and read the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution. Congress has no Constitutional power to prohibit anyone from gambling whatever they want wherever they want. That’s that.

The Senate passed one bill. H.R. 4954, the Security and Accountability for Every Port Act or SAFE Act. It is 130 pages. It would spend $7 billion to protect our seaports from terrorism, including the screening of incoming shipping for radioactive material, at the nation’s 22 largest ports. One wonders why, if terrorism is the #1 threat facing America, this bill was passed only now, five years after 9-11.

All in all, it was an unusual week, because Congress actually focused on its Constitutional responsibility to provide for the common defense. One may disagree with the border patrol bill the House passed, or the seaport security bill the Senate passed. They will make government bigger, and they probably won’t work as planned. But it is better for Congress to focus on these issues than to focus on the minutiae of our personal and economic lives.

To see the specific bills and resolutions mentioned above, or to see how specific members of Congress voted, click here for the House and here for the Senate. Roll calls are listed in reverse chronological order. To find the number of pages of a bill, we use the GPO PDF Display of the bill’s text.

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