My oldest brother is a forester in Minnesota. I camped out with him a while ago in the woods on Madeline Island, Wisconsin and he gave me a lecture (yes, he is an older brother) on forest seedlings that I now choose to apply to the Congressional world.
The forest floor is usually full of little seedlings about a foot high. Normally they just stay that way or are food for deer and other animals. But on occasion, when a larger tree comes down, by lightning, disease or a chain saw, those seedlings finally have their mission at hand. They have light, they can see the sky, they can now begin their growth and they race to take the place of the old tree. The newfound sunlight on the dark forest floor changed the life equation for them. The random seedling, with the best root system and perhaps genetic structure, becomes a big tree in the forest.
Congress has plenty of such seedlings on the Congressional forest floor, in fact thousands of them, waiting for that one in a million chance to grow. A whole army of people in Washington, DC, have their pet seedlings, most planted with great care and with over hyped optimism that something will happen and theirs will actually grow. Most are sorely disappointed, and look ahead to maybe next year or the next Congress. But every Congress has its lightning strikes and occasionally there is a clear-cutting by some lumber people.
Most seedlings, which normally take the form of a bill introduced by Congress, sit beneath very sturdy and healthy mature trees. The likelihood of them ever seeing daylight is almost nil. Many of them are obscure measures or ideas that are on no party or leadership agenda or are introduced by relatively obscure members, (particularly in the party out of power). Some of them are planted just to make a point or to appease a specific voting group in their district. Others are planted with great hope and trust that the great legislature will consider them.
The forests of Wisconsin were clear-cut in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries by lumber barons (including a great uncle of mine) to satisfy the vast demand for lumber in the country. The woods of Wisconsin were transformed completely and vast acres of little saplings, many of completely different types of trees than the original, moved in to reforest the land. In Congress, this too can happen, though it is very rare. The greatest clear-cutting that I recall happened in the 1930’s with President Roosevelt’s New Deal Congress that completely transformed the Federal government. The most recent mini-clear cut was the Newt Gingrich- led Republican take over of the House in 1994 and then the Republican take-over of the Senate. After a half-century of being dwarfed by Democratic trees, some Republican seedlings began taking root, though, as a whole, this was not as transformative as the New Deal.
Forests are not clear cut or burned out very often. That is a rare occurrence and, likewise, Congresses do not change party control very often. At the least, a Congress could change every two years, although normally decades will pass before such party turnover occurs. Seedlings have to wait for an occasional tree felling to have any hope. Such fellings do not happen often.
In February, an old sturdy tree fell in Congress, in a part of the forest floor that no one expected or predicted. A field of tiny saplings began to race to the sky that eventually took the form of Immigration Reform. This topic was, to the best of my knowledge, on no one’s agenda in January. Neither party placed immigration reform on their list of things to do this election year. It posed too many different problems for each party. The Hispanic vote, union labor, cheap labor, border state interests and other factors all crossed back and forth between party positions. Immigration may have needed to be addressed, but it could join the long list of needed action waiting as seedlings on the Congressional floor.
That is, until an obscure inter-agency committee led by the Department of the Treasury decided to let a Dubai based port operator (Dubai Ports World) take over control of a number of U.S. ports. A tree had fallen in the forest. While most commentators were reporting about the unexpected fall of a previously seemingly healthy tree, the biology of the Congressional floor began to seethe. The first seedlings were attempts to stop the sale of the port operations, while others attempted to change the process that started it. Then a different type of tree began to take root, border security rose to the sky and a relative species, immigration reform, had taken root. The living Congress proved itself once again.
Some commentators were quick to point out that some of the measures introduced as the result of the Treasury committee decision on the ports produced some legislation that Congress has tried to keep under wraps, including some purely protectionist and very nationalistic measures against any foreign investment. One could obviously point out that in the forest there are types of trees and plants (often weeds) that are not very helpful. Often they are non-native (foreign) and very invasive. When a canopy opening appears, all kinds of plants will compete for the sun, just as in Congress.
The Treasury led committee that started this is called the CFIUS (Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States). It really hasn’t been much of a committee in the past. It is supposed to review foreign purchases of U.S. companies and determine their national security implications. It rarely objected to a foreign purchase and some thought it was a useless committee that looked like a good idea on paper but rarely did anything. There are lots of these types of institutions in Washington. Trees that look healthy but are really completely empty inside, waiting for a strong wind to blow them over. CFIUS decided to let Dubai Ports World purchase the U.S. port operations of Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company (ironically, not a U.S. company but a very old and prestigious British company). Dubai, however, is not Great Britain. Dubai is a tiny emirate on the messy and dangerous Persian Gulf.
On February 15, by my best estimate, Congress began to take notice of the hole in the forest and began to voice its concern on the port deal. At first it focused quite intensely on the specific deal on port operations. The debate centered on the ability of the Dubai organization to effectively monitor security and, as a result, port security legislation began to see some light. Could a Dubai based company be trusted to keep our ports safe? Since Port Security is related to border security, Border Security began to take root too. With all this sunlight, Border Security then grew into Immigration Reform. Welcome to a tree felling in Washington, DC!
Enormous amounts of Congressional energy were transferred to this section of the forest. Hundreds of thousands of people poured onto the National Mall to protest and other legislation that was approved for action previously now had to wait. Someone who planted a tree on immigration reform hit the lottery, although they may rue the day because when Congress acts it may not be what they expected. Just like the forest, you never know what will grow in the clearing; perhaps some weeds will choke things off or a family of deer will feast on your seedlings.
The Dubai episode highlighted the almost organic nature of how things can develop in Congress. Many lobbyists, legislators and the administration attempt to guide the process in their preferred direction. I argue, however, that just like the forest this can be a futile process. All the sophistication and political maneuvering can be for naught because of some unexpected event or opposing group. You can carefully plant a seedling and assist in removing an old tree, but that doesn’t mean your seedling will be the replacement tree. Others seedlings are there, too, and maybe some forest disease or pest will infect your seedling or a rainstorm will wash away the now unprotected part of the forest.
Most lobbying organizations and parties attempt to predict and orchestrate the evolution of an issue before Congress. But there are methods that can bring new and important topics before Congress very quickly. Traditionally these methods have (for good reasons) been taboo. Taking the forest analogy one step further, we encounter one of the most controversial aspects of forestry, fire. The state and Federal governments spend millions to prevent forest fires, seemingly attempting to preserve the forests. Any forester will tell you, however, that fire can be good for the forest as it provides needed change and revitalization. Some species of trees will not start growth without fire. The same type of scenario can be applied to Congress. Change does not come easily in Washington, DC, and great efforts are made to prevent it and to institutionalize no changes. But change, like fire, can be the only way the system can be reinvigorated or radically transformed…though not to everyone’s tastes. I am not a fire proponent; unless I am really mad, I prefer the likes of Smokey the Bear.
Just a few days ago an old tree fell down next to the White House. This was a healthy grand old tree (it is pictured on the $20 bill). Several days of rain, however, caused it’s shallow root system to collapse and the tree fell. My forester brother emailed me immediately: “See what happens when you mess with the trees?” The beautiful tree looked great but all the trampling and compacting (perhaps Rose Garden parties and media stake outs) of the soil around it doomed the tree. “Watch out for the roots! Not the pretty branches” he wrote. So begins a new forest analogy, but I will keep that for another article. [My apologies to Mother Nature for oversimplifying a wonderful natural process and for applying it to the mere mortal processes of Congress.]