If you happen to visit the first floor of the U.S. Capitol in the next 24 hours, don't be frightened if you hear several loud cracks in rapid succession. It's probably not a terrorist attack. It is probably House Majority Leader Tom DeLay limbering up his bull whip for another tough day in the "well" of the House of Representatives. The issue this time is a decision by the Republican leadership to unilaterally overturn the work of its own committee and strip language from the Homeland Security Appropriations Bill before it can be considered by the full House. To do that, DeLay and Speaker Dennis Hastert will have to pass a rule and they will only have sufficient votes if many of those who supported the language in Committee reverse themselves when the matter comes before the full House.
In question is a decision by Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge to award a $10 billion contract to Accenture Corporation for development of the Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology (US-VISIT) program. This program is intended to upgrade our ability to track visitors to the United States during their time within our borders. But the choice of Accenture is curious since the company itself has essentially chosen to become a "corporate alien." In recent years Accenture has made a number of complex corporate reorganizations which has resulted in the nominal headquarters of the company being located in Bermuda and a dramatic reduction in the corporate income tax that the company must pay the federal government. While Accenture is perfectly willing to take as many billions as the Department of Homeland Security or any other federal agency will throw their way, they have used every trick in the book to make sure that other corporations and individuals pay the taxes necessary to make such contracts possible.
Not surprisingly, 17 of the 36 Republicans on the Appropriations Committee did not stick with Ridge or the White House on the vote. Eight other committee Republicans elected to not vote at all. None of them wanted to explain a vote in favor of the Accenture contract to the folks back home. House Republican leaders also recognized that voting straight up or down on the contract would be more than they could ask from members already nervous about sagging opinion polls and the prospects of reelection. As a result DeLay and Hastert ordered the House Rules Committee to report a "rule" governing the debate and consideration of the bill that negated the Accenture language and made a floor amendment limiting the use of funds for such purposes out of order. The only sticking point in the leadership strategy is that to pass the rule they will need 218 votes and if as many as 11 of the 17 people who voted against the Accenture contract in committee refuse to perform a flip-flop in front of House C-Span cameras, the rule could fail.
As a result we should see some real theater during coverage of the House floor proceedings tomorrow. Who will House members fear most, their constituents back home or DeLay as he moves down the narrow crowded aisles on the House floor? Will they finally start taking direction from the people whose votes put them on the House floor or will they continue to take orders from the guy raises and disperses the big bucks and hands out committee assignments? Tune in tomorrow.
Scott Lilly is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.