Looking for a Bailout? Just Call Your Congressman

Little-known legislative tool bestows special treatment, case by case.

November 4, 2009, 11:48 AM

Nov. 5, 2009— -- "For the relief of" -- four words that typically form the opening of a little-known type of federal law -- could be the secret to solving your problems with the U.S. government. That is, if a member of Congress is willing to write the bill to bail you out.

"Private laws" -- pieces of stand-alone legislation that apply only to specific individuals, families or corporations -- have granted citizenship to illegal immigrants, waived personal debts owed to the government and bestowed federal health care and retirement benefits to employees or spouses who might not otherwise have qualified.

While they've become exceedingly rare in recent years, dozens of private laws-to-be are quietly awaiting consideration by the 111th Congress -- 37 are pending in the Senate and 62 in the House, representing a treasure trove of cases deemed special enough by their sponsors to merit their own laws.

Rep. Bob Filner, D-Calif, who's introduced the most private bills in the House this year, hopes his nine pieces of legislation will expedite federal court cases, grant permanent residency status to immigrants, and even extend the term of a patent by two years.

The patent -- No. 5,180,715, held by the University of California -- relates to the "irrigation of internal bladder surfaces in mammals," protecting a unique method of curing bladder infections. It's unclear why the patent deserves a special law.

Most pieces of legislation, once passed by both houses of Congress and signed by the president, are listed officially in the Federal Register as "public laws," since they apply to society at large.

Private legislation, serving interests both quirky and mundane, has long been used by members of Congress to rectify wrongs and help constituents who ostensibly have fallen through a bureaucratic "crack."

Among the notable private laws enacted is one from 1987, introduced by then-Rep. Dick Cheney, R-Wyo., which ordered the government to pay a certain Lawrence K. Lunt "full compensation for losses incurred" because of his conviction and imprisonment in Cuba for spying on behalf of the United States.

Congress enacted more than 4,000 private laws during the 1950s and a little over 300 in the 1980s, but since 2000, only 37 private laws have been passed by both houses and signed by the president. During the last two sessions of Congress, not a single private law was enacted.

This, however, hasn't stopped some members of Congress from trying to get private bills passed.

Members of Congress Pitch 100 Private Bills So Far in '09

ABC News reviewed an assortment of the private bills on the House and Senate calendars this year.

Among them is a law proposed by Rep. Tim Holden, D-Pa., to authorize the president to award the Medal of Honor to Richard D. Winters of Hershey, Pa., for "acts of valor" he performed while an officer in the 101st Airborne in Normandy, France, on D-Day, June 6, 1944.

Democrat Jay Inslee of Washington wants lawmakers to award federal retirement benefits to Valerie Plame Wilson, the former CIA officer famously "outed" by the late newspaper columnist Robert Novak in July 2003.

Inslee, a close friend of Wilson's husband, former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson, first introduced the "Valerie Plame Wilson Compensation Act" in 2007.

"She has been left without a career," Inslee said on the House floor in January 2007.

Despite 20 years of service as a federal employee, Valerie Plame Wilson left the CIA before reaching the minimum age to receive a retirement annuity. Inslee's bill would allow her to qualify for the benefit.

South Carolina Republican Joe Wilson wants the government to grant permanent resident status to Sainey H. Fatty, an illegal immigrant who faces deportation to his native Gambia.

Wilson famously yelled "You lie!" in the House chamber during President Obama's speech to a joint session of Congress in September, when the president said the health care reforms he proposed would not apply to illegal immigrants. A Wilson aide tells ABC News the congressman believes Fatty's life is at danger in Gambia and that he should be allowed to remain at his current home in Columbia, S.C., the heart of Wilson's district.

The majority of private bills drafted over the past 30 years have involved cases like Fatty's, in which immigrants living in the United States appeal to lawmakers to prevent their often imminent deportations.

Also among the bills in the hopper this year is one involving the family of Amadou Diallo, the unarmed 22-year-old West African immigrant who was gunned down by four New York City police officers in 1999. Diallo's mother, brother, three other non-citizen relatives are now facing a review of their immigration status.

Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., has proposed a private bill to grant permanent U.S. residency to Diallo's surviving family members.

"We took their son from them," Rangel aide Emile Milne told ABC News.

"This may not be the way to do immigration policy, but they're good people," Milne said. "If this is what they want, it's the least we can do."

While the majority of private bills relate to a single individual or a small family, one introduced by Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., would grant permanent resident status to a list of 40 immigrants.

Rush spokeswoman Sharon Jenkins would not elaborate when asked to explain the individuals' situations. "I really cannot offer any other details than what's in the bill," she said.

In the Senate, Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., has proposed more private laws than any of her colleagues, introducing 17 of the 62 currently on the calendar. Her colleague Carl Levin, D-Mich., ranks second as a sponsor of eight.

Most of Feinstein's bills involve immigration matters, and although she has publicly acknowledged that bills written "for the relief of…" seldom pass nowadays, she has said private bills highlight extraordinary cases that deserve special treatment.

Private Bills Highlight Cases for Special Treatment

An ABC News analysis of the 400 private pieces of legislation that succeeding in becoming law over the past 30 years reveals an interesting mix of issues and cases in which lawmakers have quietly bestowed special treatment.

Private laws reflect lawmakers "looking at one particular case and saying, 'Gosh, this person right in front of me is such a sympathetic person they need a break,'" Jan Ting, a Temple University law professor and former assistant commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, told ABC News.

But Ting is among those critical of private legislation, as he says it circumvents established bureaucratic procedures, clutters the legislative process, and feeds a "bad habit" of allowing members of Congress to serve their constituents' interests without addressing the systemic or societal causes of a problem. Some also say private bills are rife with corruption and favoritism.

"Private bills can actually help highlight a problem that needs to be fixed in the system," Ting said. "On the other hand, you can't really run a country on a case by case system, in immigration, in tax or in anything else."

House and Senate historians tell ABC News that may be why Congress has lost its appetite for private legislation in recent years. They say the trend away from such bills reflects a change in legislative procedures and Congressional culture over the past 50 years, with the leadership focused more on broader societal reforms than on individual relief.

Congress has always had the power to pass laws for private relief. Five of the 108 laws enacted by the First Congress were private laws.

By the late 1800s, Congress actually passed more private laws that public ones.

For example, between 1885 and 1887, 1,031 private laws were added to the books compared with 434 public laws. Most of those laws awarded pensions to widows of Civil War soldiers and resolved claims against the government, according to the House Historian's Office.

"Congress was so inundated with private pension and claims bills that individual groups -- the start of professional lobbyists -- would be engaged to help with the process," House Historian Anthony Wallis told ABC News.

Today, "Congress has expanded administrative discretion with many of the situations that tended to give rise to private bills," said Wallis. "Private provisions also are occasionally included into public legislation, reducing the need for private laws."

Those "provisions" are widely referred to as earmarks.

Notable Private Laws from Past Thirty Years

The most recent private bill to become law -- the Betty Dick Residence Protection Act of 2006, introduced by then-Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo., and signed by President George W. Bush -- allowed elderly Colorado resident Betty Dick to keep her summer cabin on government property inside the boundaries of Rocky Mountain National Park. The Park Service had threatened to seize the property after an agreement Dick's late husband made with the government had expired.

Other notable pieces of private legislation over in the past few decades have resolved claims against the government for unpaid bills or alleged injury at the hands of federal agents. A slew of laws even absolved overpaid federal employees from returning the money.

Private Law 98-12 -- "A bill for the relief of sixteen employees of the Charleston Naval Shipyard" -- sponsored by late South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond, permitted the workers to keep the extra cash they were paid due to an administrative error in 1983.

Several private laws have settled human resources matters for federal employees, allowing workers to recoup travel expenses or transfer accumulated sick leave to a coworker.

The late Texas Democratic Rep. J.J. Pickle drafted private legislation in 1986 to allow IRS employee Susan A. Sampeck to transfer her accumulated sick and vacation days to another employee to use. The bill "for relief of Susan Sampeck" became law in 1987.

A Congressional Research Service report on private laws, written in 1998, says private legislation is "appropriate in cases for which no other remedy is available and when its enactment would, in a broad sense, afford equity."

But determining just which cases meet that criteria has proven a time-consuming and potentially thorny subject in recent Congresses, Ting told ABC News.

"Congressional leadership doesn't like these private bills," he said, "They take a lot of time and if people start getting the idea that private bills actually lead to legislation, you're going to be drowning in legislation."

ABC News' Steven Portnoy contributed to this report.