The Congress That Couldn’t Add

Always a bit contrarian, Chatterbox is getting ready to cross the line and commit the ultimate Washington heresy. Readers with sensitive psyches are hereby warned to avert their eyes for the rest of this item. Parents are instructed to whisk small children from the room. The rest of you should brace yourselves, grabbing the sides of your chairs for support is recommended, because Chatterbox is about to recount a story that has absolutely nothing to do with impeachment.

As cyber libertarians recall with glee, Congress back in October passed the Internet Tax Freedom Act that slapped a three-year moratorium on all efforts to tax on-line sales. As part of that landmark legislation, Congress created a 19-person Advisory Commission on Electronic Commerce. Three of these slots were reserved for Treasury Secretary Bob Rubin, Commerce Secretary Bill Daley, and Charlene Barshefsky, the special trade representative. Congress charged itself with the solemn responsibility of choosing the remaining 16 commission members, mandating that they should be evenly divided among representatives of the private sector and governmental officials. Just to add a new-math wrinkle to the calculations, Congress also required that one of the eight business leaders on the panel must represent Main Street America and that the eight governmental appointees include someone from a state without a sales tax.

As is typical of such advisory committees, outgoing House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott each got to choose five members, while Democratic minority leaders Dick Gephardt and Tom Daschle split the other six appointees. In an ideal universe, the four congressional leaders would sit around a table and draft the 16 commission members as they do in Rotisserie baseball. At minimum, Chatterbox would expect that staffers for these busy legislators might have found time to coordinate among themselves to make sure that the selections fit the congressional criteria.

But wait, this is Washington where preening egos and back-stairs favor trading can derail the simplest calculations. Before he decamped from Washington to plan his lucrative new life on the after-dinner circuit, Gingrich unilaterally filled his five slots with the likes of Republican operative Grover Norquist, who heads Americans for Tax Reform. This week Lott, Gephardt and Daschele named their picks in similar go-it-alone fashion. You can guess the haphazard result–the would-be commission members includes 10 industry representatives and just six governmental officials. (A simple explanation for the mismatch: businessmen are far more loyal campaign contributors). Moreover, none of the public officials is from a no-sales-tax state and the Mom-and-Pop stores of Main Street America seem to be represented by David Pottruck, the co-president of Charles Schwab.

Before the Dec. 20 statutory deadline, the four congressional leaders now face the embarrassing task of booting two already selected business executives off the commission. The snafu is all because Congress in its bipartisan wisdom couldn’t figure out a way of properly adding up to 16. Congress’ unbelievably maladroit math prompts Chatterbox to ask, “Are these the people we want to preside over the complex calculations necessary to reform Social Security?”

Walter Shapiro