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Congress turns Utah water bill into military pension boost
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Washington • Congress passed a measure this week aimed at fixing a decades old paperwork mistake on a Utah County water system.

But, um, wait, Congress actually passed that bill last year and President Barack Obama has already signed it into law.

So why the second vote?

Well, overnight, the South Utah Valley Electrical Conveyance Act became the restore-cuts-to-the-military-pensions-cost-of-living act.

Welcome to Washington, where the behind-the-scenes maneuvering can sometimes give you whiplash. This kind of thing isn't covered in that 1970s cartoon that used to explain how Congress works.

"Anyone who thinks that Congress operates under the old Schoolhouse Rock procedures is going to be in for a shock," says Jim Manley, a former top adviser to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. "Stuff like this is nowhere to be found in that old chestnut we all grew up watching."

Sometimes Congress needs a last-minute vehicle to pass legislation and tends to grab the closest available bill. In this case, Republicans demanded that if they were to support an increase to the nation's borrowing limit, Congress would have to remove a one-percent slash to cost-of-living raises for military pensions.

Enter the Utah bill.

The House version of the legislation was passed by both chambers last July and is now on the books, but the Senate version had been sitting around for some time. When the need arose for a bill that could be hollowed out and refilled with the pension language, the House turned to Sen. Orrin Hatch's water measure.

"Congress doesn't always abide by the textbook way that a bill becomes a law," says Hatch spokeswoman Antonia Ferrier, who notes under Democratic control, the whole process of a bill going through committee and getting amended on the floor is now a "quaint thing of the past."

"Sometimes in order to facilitate getting something done," she adds, "leadership in the House and the Senate has to turn to a variety of different tools; that's how we've seen the shell of this bill turn into the legislative vehicle to restore military pension cuts."

It's also how, for another example, a measure to designate an air-traffic-control center in Nashua, N.H., somehow became the bill that raised the nation's debt limit. It had nothing to do with naming the New Hampshire complex the Patricia Clark Boston Air Route Traffic Control Center and everything to do with saying the Treasury Department could borrow some more cash to pay the government's bills.

But don't fear. The air traffic control center has not suffered for a lack of a name. Congress approved a House version of the bill last year and President Barack Obama signed it on Aug. 9, 2013.

tburr@sltrib.com

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