Looking for a Bailout? Just Call Your Congressman

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

ByABC News
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.