WASHINGTON ― One morning in early March of 2013, I received a reporting tip for what I thought would be the single dumbest story I would ever write. When I answered the phone, the Capitol Hill staffer on the other end could barely contain his laughter. House Republicans had slipped detailed language into a must-pass government funding bill that would prevent federal cash from flowing to an anti-poverty group called ACORN.
My source wasn’t a cold-hearted bureaucrat.
The GOP had grown accustomed to demanding concessions from Democrats on critical legislation since winning control of the House in 2010. Some of these maneuvers ― including a failed attempt to repeal Obamacare ― carried serious policy implications. But this particular case of legislative hostage-taking came with a punchline: ACORN didn’t exist. The organization had disbanded nearly three years prior. Congress was about to do something thoroughly futile, for no reason.
There was a certain aesthetic harmony between the emptiness of this looming legislative assault and the attack that caused ACORN’s demise. In 2009, conservative provocateur James O’Keefe had stitched together undercover footage that appeared to show ACORN staffers offering financial advice to a pimp who declared he was prostituting underage girls. Multiple government investigations would eventually clear ACORN of legal wrongdoing, and O’Keefe’s career would descend into a series of bizarre self-owns. But the damage to ACORN was done. Congress voted to cut off federal funding and the group closed its doors, humiliated.
Years later, ACORN’s enemies were apparently still not satisfied. I called the GOP spokeswoman for the House Appropriations Committee, who told me the anti-ACORN language was “a typical provision that is included in most appropriations bills.” This explanation, of course, only made everything weirder. Why would Congress routinely bar federal funding for an organization that doesn’t exist?
The ultimate answer turned out to be that Congress was barely functional. And it remains all-but-broken today. Four years later, here I am, sitting at my desk, writing another story about a budget bill attacking funds for ACORN. It’s right there on page 1,060 of the latest government funding legislation:
None of the funds made available under this or any other Act, or any prior Appropriations Act, may be provided to the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), or any of its affiliates, subsidiaries, allied organizations, or successors.
Since ACORN does not exist, it has no affiliates or subsidiaries. “Allied organizations” and “successors” are not legally defined terms. I know because I have written different versions of this story over and over and over again. Every time Congress unveils a new bill to fund the federal government, I do a quick search through the text for “ACORN,” and Congress rarely lets me down.
Sometimes liberal publications or nerdy blogs boost the stories, but they always click well, because this tale is always so breathtakingly stupid. In August 2014, in a fit of foolishness, I declared the crusade against ACORN over because the language attacking funds for the nonexistent organization had disappeared from the budget bill. It reappeared in December of that year, prompting HuffPost’s publication of what I still believe to be the masterwork of this mini-genre, which we headlined “Tears of Sisyphus: Republicans Resurrect ACORN, Only To Murder It. Again.”
Once upon a time, lawmakers determined the federal budget by debating policy priorities and holding hearings about what the appropriate funding levels for different programs ought to be. This would be a series of negotiations over final appropriations and, ultimately, a relatively reliable stream of funds would emerge for social services, scientific research and other federal programs.
Congressional leaders abandoned that process some years ago, after a calamitous effort to extract ideological concessions tied to a bill to raise the debt ceiling nearly resulted in the U.S. government defaulting on the federal debt. In place of the old system, party leaders now copy and paste language from prior bills, seeking to avoid controversy, and hash out any disputes in private meetings. That’s how the ACORN phrasing makes it into law again and again. Somebody just pulls up whatever the old language was on Department of Health and Human Services funding, correctly assessing that whatever passed last time around won’t cause too much trouble today.
I used to get a kick out of the ACORN story. Most of my writing for HuffPost involves financial regulation, international bribery or some other technical issue involving money and numbers with high stakes. ACORN was a nice break ― something fun, stupid and essentially harmless.
But I can’t do it anymore. I’ve been writing about this foolishness for more than four years, and I’m not getting the same sense of joy or relief I used to get from seeing those five magic letters. The truth is that I’m starting to resent this beat, and I don’t want to remember it as something frustrating or annoying. I want to remember ACORN the way it deserves to be remembered. It’s not you, ACORN. It’s me.