Failure of trust grows worse

More than you may think, the process of making laws at both the state and federal levels relies on trust. That may be breaking down.

Two federal laws, on health care and flood insurance, resulted in terrible mistakes being made because members of Congress trusted their leaders and President Barack Obama. At the state level, a minimum wage measure approved by huge majorities in both the House of Delegates and state Senate could be the poster bill for a “devil in the details” warning.

Remember what Rep. Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the House when the Obamacare law was enacted, said of the action in 2010? “We have to pass the bill so that you can find out what’s in it.” She meant that quite literally. How many members of Congress do you suppose would say today that, knowing what they do now, they would vote again for Obamacare?

Lawmakers trusted people such as Pelosi – who didn’t even know what she was urging fellow Democrats to approve.

Much the same thing happened regarding the Biggert-Waters Act of 2012, intended to help the National Flood Insurance Program overcome a $24 billion deficit. BW12, in government parlance, passed by overwhelming, bipartisan majorities in Congress.

Lawmakers believed what the Obama administration told them – that, in the words of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, BW12 would require the flood insurance program “to raise rates to reflect true flood risk.”

Then local property owners began receiving notices their flood insurance rates would skyrocket. One man told our reporter his premiums during an eight-year period would cover total replacement of his home.

Anger about BW12 increased when it became known nearly all the NFIP’s $24 billion deficit was because of claims linked to Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy – in coastal areas. Inland property owners were being forced to cough up higher premiums to, in effect, subsidize victims of coastal storms.

Now, Congress – also by overwhelming majorities – has voted to delay BW12 premium increases. Many lawmakers feel they were deceived. They were.

It happens at the state level, too. The episode over a bill to increase the minimum wage in West Virginia makes that clear.

That bill sailed through the Legislature. House of Delegates members approved it by an 89-5 vote, with nearly all Republicans joining Democrats to pass the measure.

Now an attorney from a well-respected law firm has analyzed the bill and concluded it has several consequences lawmakers did not intend.

Someone told them everything was all right. They were misled, either intentionally or because of a bill writer who wasn’t thinking.

At first glance, one is tempted to conclude legislators in both Charleston and Washington will refuse to trust anyone who assures them in the future that a bill does only what its supporters contend. But they have no choice. They have to trust someone.

It is impossible for any legislator at either the state or federal level to read – not to mention understand – every bill he or she is called upon to consider. There are hundreds, sometimes thousands of bills introduced each year. During their regular 60-day session this year, members of the West Virginia House of Delegates faced 1,245 bills.

Especially at the federal level, individual bills, even on seemingly simple matters, can run to thousands of pages.

So lawmakers have to rely on staffs – and much of the time, their political party leaders – to explain bills to them. They have no choice.

Obviously, Obamacare was sold because many Democrats thought they could trust Pelosi and other party leaders. And they believed the president of the United States.

Here’s the thing: We wring our hands about “gridlock” resulting from disagreements about policy. If breaches of basic trust continue – and there is no reason to believe they will not – how on earth can lawmakers have any confidence in what they’re doing?

And how can we?

EDITOR’S NOTE: Mike Myer is executive editor of The Intelligencer and the Wheeling News-Register. He can be reached via e-mail at mmyer@theintelligencer.net