Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Deem and Pass

by Richard Crews
Congress has been drying its laundry in public lately (part of the new Obama transparency), but the stains on the sheets have become the laughing stock of the neighborhood.

First it was "pass it [health reform] or stay after school"--summer break would be delayed. But you just can't keep study hall and detention open indefinitely, so last July the Democrats finally said, "OK, go play in the sunshine, but we're going to make it a summer STUDY vacation by having Town Meetings all over the country to talk about health-care reform." The Republicans responded, "Just try it!" And they sent agitators to those Town Meetings all over the country to heckle and disrupt the discussions and distort the facts.

The media helped. Town Meetings are usually dull, drab affairs. But when someone--anyone (even someone from out of town carrying a briefcase with an elephant on it)--stands up and starts shouting obscenities--that's NEWS, baby!

These disruption tactics were so successful that the Republicans surprised themselves. As a result, stalling, disrupting, and obfuscating became the new Republican Platform.

The Republicans also came back from their summer of rabble-rousing fun having spawned a new party--the Tea Party--in the bushes by the side of the road. It didn't amount to much, that Tea Party, a dirty little thing all sweaty and fragmented, but as the Washington gridlock escalated, it grew and coalesced and became a strange, grassroots, populist movement that was scary to both Republicans and Democrats alike. (This may be the only thing they have agreed on recently.)

As the new Republican Platform (to stall, disrupt, and obfuscate) developed, it was clearly unwieldy and ridiculous. The Republicans would filibuster everything, get over-ridden, and then many Republicans would vote to pass the legislation they had just filibustered--several bills passed in the Senate, after overcoming a filibuster, by 80% and even 90% margins. (The advantage of this was that legislators could later campaign as having voted either for or against the bill depending on how the political winds were blowing.) In addition, scores of appointments of judges and Executive Department directors were blocked--and the Republicans could then trumpet the judicial overload and lack of Executive Department leadership.

The curious thing was that opinion polls showed the American public buying it. The Democrats lost ground in the national popularity contest, and the Republicans gained ground (not much ground, to be sure--mostly the public was just fed up with Washington bickering and do-nothing-ness). But that shift in the polls made the Republicans more and more intransigent.

Along came a Democratic defeat in an obscure Senate contest in Massachusetts (a state which already had universal health-care insurance), and the Republicans solidified their filibuster-wielding minority.

Not to worry: "reconciliation" emerged into the spotlight (it had previously played in the shadows), and filibusters versus anti-filibuster "super-majorities" no longer ruled the day.

However, a curious problem arose in the House of Representatives. Democrats wanted--in fact, they needed--to pass health-care reform; otherwise the myth was rampant that they had not accomplished much. But they didn't want to have to vote for it and possibly get hung out to dry in hometown, midterm elections. So by passing an amendment to the Senate reconciliation by an obscure "deem and pass" rule, they could have their cake and eat it too: they could pass health-care reform without actually having voted for it.

Let the good times roll!