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Election-Year Posturing From Congress Defines Campaigns

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Congress is now doing what it normally does, in an election year. This is not intended to sound cynical, as I actually think it is a good thing for a divided Congress to stand up for its divided beliefs -- even while knowing that almost none of the bills it now votes on have a prayer of becoming law before the election. But these bills do serve an important purpose, and that is to define the two parties' differing agendas and priorities for the campaign. The clearer the picture that emerges between Democrats and Republicans, the better idea the citizenry has of what it is supporting in the ballot box, come November. So I actually welcome all the posturing which is now happening in both houses.

In any Congress where one party controls each house, the parties have two basic choices: compromise, or total warfare. We admittedly haven't seen the "compromise" version in quite a while, but it did used to happen on occasion. It's pretty obvious, though, that the House Republicans and the Senate Democrats of today have not managed to reach any sort of compromise on much of anything of importance (at least, not without the threat of fiscal disaster staring them in the face -- and even that hasn't always worked). But America has seen such historical periods of bitter partisan divisions before, so this has to be considered part of our basic governmental makeup. We do not have a parliamentary system here, where the leader of the country can count on a friendly legislature to push his or her agenda. Built into the American system is the possibility that one or both chambers of Congress could be controlled by the opposition.

Since they're not compromising on anything these days, both the House and the Senate are now holding what could be called "ad-bait" votes: forcing a floor vote on a bill not because you expect to put actual legislation on the president's desk, but rather to stake out your party's position for the upcoming election -- and to force the other party to vote against something which they know will be used against them in an attack ad during the campaign.

Again, this is where many people get either cynical, or downright disgusted. I, however, do not. What else, after all, is Congress supposed to do all year? Even legislation that passes the Senate by wide bipartisan margins (such as the immigration reform bill) is not going to get a vote in the House this year, meaning that even when Democrats make compromises to gain Republican votes in the Senate, John Boehner is still going to ignore such efforts. In the meantime, Democrats and Republicans might as well lay out their competing visions for the future for the American public to see, right before the midterms. Which is exactly what they're both doing.

In the House, Republicans are moving forward on passing Paul Ryan's latest budget blueprint. As usual, this document is shockingly light on actual details, while long on ideology. Ryan would close tax loopholes, he swears, but he won't say how -- he won't identify a single loophole he'd close. Ryan's budget also slashes spending on the poor, while at the same time offering up some saccharine language on how much Republicans really, really care about the poor. It is essentially the same budget that Ryan has passed for the past few years, with not much in the way of new ideas. Unless John Boehner totally loses control of his caucus (always a possibility, what with the Tea Party faction of hardliners), Ryan's budget will pass this year as well.

This is all fine and good, because it gives both parties their talking points for the campaign. By passing the Ryan budget, House Republicans are saying "this is what we stand for," and Democratic candidates can cherry-pick specifics and slam Republicans in ads (while Republicans slam Democrats back for not being sufficiently austere, and for Obamacare).

House Democrats don't have a whole lot of power to force issues. Being in the minority in the House condemns a party to near-irrelevancy when it comes to what actually gets voted on, so Democrats have to be creative with the tools they do possess to get their message across. Which they are doing, although it doesn't make the news as often. This week, Democrats forced committee votes on bills to raise the minimum wage, improve mine safety, provide equal pay for women, and guarantee non-discrimination. This doesn't put every Republican on record voting against such things, but it does at least put the Republicans on that committee on the record. Nancy Pelosi has also been attempting "discharge petitions" on bills the Senate has passed which would likely also pass the House, if given an up-or-down vote (most notably, on immigration reform). While not an actual floor vote (which would put every Republican "on the record"), the fact that they refuse to sign a discharge petition can be used in a political ad in the same fashion: "Representative Smith refused to allow a vote on immigration reform." This is a key tactic Democrats should be using this year, even if it does sound wonky: demanding such up-or-down votes -- as a matter of fairness.

Over in the Senate, Democrats seem to be seeing the light on holding contentious votes to put Republicans on the record. Being an election year, pretty much any bill of any consequence that passes the Senate is going to be "dead on arrival" in the House. In other words, it simply doesn't matter whether the bills actually pass the Senate or not (since the outcome will essentially be the same). This frees up Harry Reid from making any attempt to court Republican votes. Why compromise, when the House will never consider the bill? Rather than watering down good Democratic ideas in an attempt to peel off five or six Republicans, instead hold votes on the full-throated Democratic bill and force Republicans to kill it by filibuster over and over again. Harry Reid just did so on equal pay for women, and he's reportedly got a whole raft of such bills lined up for the rest of the year, the biggest of which may be the minimum wage hike. And Harry can keep bringing these bills up over and over again, all year long.

Republicans have already laid out their campaign for all to see: a combination of Paul Ryan's budget and repealing Obamacare. That's all they are standing for this time around, and they think it will be enough to claim victory in November (and even possibly take back control of the Senate). But Democrats can't just be against what Republicans are running on -- they also need to present their partisan vision to the voters, to paint a stark contrast. So far, they are mostly concentrating on economic issues and immigration. This could pay off for them, especially with women voters -- a demographic Republicans seem to be going out of their way to offend at pretty much every opportunity.

Midterm elections are usually all about turnout. The party that can fire up its base more usually wins. Republicans normally do better at midterms, but not always (see: 2006). Republicans, this time around, are confident that hating Obamacare is going to turn their rank and file out in droves this November. They may very well be right about that. Democrats, led by Senate filibuster votes and House discharge petitions, also seem interested in playing offense this year. Each one of the votes that is now taking place is baiting Republicans for ads this election cycle: "Republicans are solidly against raising the minimum wage -- vote Democratic!" But to create these ads -- which are often the only way many voters get their information about their candidates -- Democrats need to force their issues now, using all the parliamentary tools they have at their disposal.

Rather than seeing this cynically ("Both parties in Congress are just wasting everyone's time by voting on bills that are never going to become law"), I see this as a good thing. Perhaps it is my inherent bias, because in some years Democrats do a pretty woeful job at forcing such votes. "Voters know where we stand," Democrats tell themselves, "and they hate gridlock -- so let's just not vote on these contentious issues." This is spectacularly wrongheaded thinking, in my opinion. An example of this currently is the fact that Harry Reid has already admitted that Senate Democrats aren't even going to attempt a Senate budget bill this year to counter Ryan's House bill. They're just throwing in the towel completely, since they see budgetary politics as being pointless this year (since the deal reached by Ryan and Senator Patty Murray effectively punts all fiscal crises until well after the midterms). "It'd just be posturing," Senate Democrats seem to have all agreed. Which only leaves them the option of directly attacking Ryan's budget, without presenting their own ideas as a clear contrast to Ryan's.

But posturing is important. It is part of the dance we call American politics. When one side pushes their agenda and the other side refuses to even do so, it smacks of weakness and not being willing to stand for your party's principles. Forcefully outlining those principles -- even on bills that have no chance of arriving on Obama's desk -- is important because it sends a very clear message to the electorate: if our party were in full control of both houses of Congress, this is what we'd do. To me, that is important and worthwhile. It goes a long way towards defining the race, and clearly defining the parties' differing approaches to governing. When compromise is impossible, you might as well fight as hard as you can for what you believe in, in the hopes of convincing the voters that your ideas are better and worth their support. Which is why I'm not cynical at all when I watch these votes in both houses. They are laying the foundations for both parties' midterm campaigns, and the more clearly these differences are defined, the better.


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