“Ace, why bother coming to Washington during the Christmas break?” complained Patty. “Nobody’s here. They’ve all gone home for the holidays.”
Patty’s a little slow sometimes, but I try to be patient with her. “Of course,” I said. “That’s the point. Everybody’s gone, so you don’t have all the traffic, all the crowds, the standing in line.”
She gritted her teeth, which ought to be worn down to nubbins by now. “The reason there are no crowds, Ace, is there’s nothing to see. Congress is shut down. The circus has left town.”
She was wrong.
We arrived at the Capitol, and the place was a madhouse. Panel trucks and pickups parked everywhere, workmen scurrying, extension cords tangled and stretching in all directions. I grabbed a guy in coveralls who looked as if he’d been finishing drywall. “Hey, what’s going on?” I inquired.
“Rush construction project,” he grunted. “Gotta get it done before the bigwigs roll back in.”
“What is it?” I asked. “New security measures for the Congress? I know terrorism is their top priority.”
“You’ve got it,” he said. “It’s all about financial security for the members of Congress. They’re terrified an opportunity will pass them by. We’re installing an auction chamber for the House and Senate. It’s gonna be official now: government to the highest bidder.”
“Say,” I said, “Patty here loves auctions. She picked up my vibrating recliner when she was at an auction last October. Got it for twenty-five bucks, and it had to be worth twice that much! Any chance she could sit in and bid on whatever comes up?”
“I doubt it,” he said. “The way I understand it, it’s a closed deal, only open to lobbyists. There’s probably nothing going up for auction she’d want anyway—it’s just the Congress members’ votes and influence.”
“I’ll bet you could still pick up some bargains,” I grumped.
“Sure you can,” he admitted. “These energy conglomerates and pharmaceutical companies generate billions in profits from loopholes and favored treatment they worm out of Congress, and they get those things for a pittance. Corporations have been able to buy a bill for less than they spend in a week on advertising.”
“Why do they need an auction chamber?” I asked. “I thought Congresspeople were making out pretty well with the current system.”
“It’s this Abramoff scandal,” he said. “A lot of them have been embarrassed into giving their payoffs to charity, so they ended up selling their votes for nothing. It’s got them all upset. And then, when the figures started coming out in the papers, some members got really ticked. They’d been pricing their votes as low as five thousand bucks. That’s not even enough to buy a good used car.
“Now they learn there were other members getting $60,000 a pop. Conrad Burns got $150,000 from Abramoff, his associates and tribal clients. When the other members heard how they’d been shortchanged, it just undermined their faith in the whole system.”
“No wonder,” I said. “So putting in an auction chamber is a bid for fairness, so to speak.”
“Sure,” he said. “That way, everybody gets an equal shot at it. It’s one of the reform measures pushed through by the Republican leadership.”
“Will they have the know-how to make it work?” I asked.
“In some ways the process is already pretty much in place,” he said, “but a lot of them have signed up for a quickie course in auctioneering over the break.”
“Won’t all of this drive up the price of government?” worried Patty.
“That’s the whole idea,” said the drywaller.
“Do you think you’ll get finished on time?”
“Looks like it,” he said, “the way everybody’s pitchin’ in. Some of the members and their staff even came back to help.”
“I thought that guy over there looked familiar,” said Patty, pointing.
He glanced to his right. “The guy with the hammer?” he asked. “That’s Tom DeLay. He’s the architect for this project, but he’s always willing to pitch in and bend a few nails.”
© Tony Russell, 2006