'Show votes' dominate Congress as elections approach
WASHINGTON – This week, the Democratic-led Senate voted twice within 21 hours to try to stop a GOP filibuster on a SuperPAC donor transparency bill, called the DISCLOSE Act. The doomed effort failed both times.
Last week, the Republican-led U.S. House voted – for the 31st time – to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Even though GOP leaders knew the repeal quest would die in the Senate, they wanted to get Democrats on the record – once again – on “Obamacare.”
So goes the endless debates on Capitol Hill as the nation, still struggling with economic doldrums and joblessness, stumbles toward what some view as a landmark election.
With the Senate and House often operating as if in separate political universes, Congress has reached the point at which symbolic “show votes” – which aim to get one side or the other on the record for political purposes – will dominate until the post-election “lame duck” session, when most of the pressing business is likely to be tackled.
It’s often a hashtag approach to legislating, in which messaging operations of both sides are seizing on simplistic themes – such as #StopTheTaxHikes or #DISCLOSE Act or #FiscalCliff – to make political points, rather than trying to hammer out an elusive (and, given the election season, doomed) legislative compromise.
“This week we voted twice on something called the DISCLOSE Act that had absolutely no chance of becoming law this year, and everybody on this [Senate] floor knew it,” complained U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo.
He accuses Senate leaders of playing “small ball” and wants it to focus on major legislation that affects business and jobs. “We ought to be dealing with these big [economic] issues now rather than later.”
What Blunt didn’t mention is that the DISCLOSE bill – which got a majority of votes in the Senate both times – was doomed because Senate Republicans united in a filibuster and Democrats couldn’t muster the 60 votes needed to stop it. The bill, a response to the fact that outside political committees such as SuperPACs don’t have to name their donors, would require disclosure of those who contribute $10,000 or more.
When Republicans ask, “Why do you keep bringing this up? We bring it up because people are upset about it,” said U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. In an appearance on MSNBC’s Hardball, the Missouri Democrat said: “Let’s not let these guys buy our elections.”
Of course, senators up for election, like McCaskill and Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, have good reasons to want disclosure. “There’s been almost $8 million of secret money spent against me in this campaign,” McCaskill said. “I think the people of Missouri, if they knew who were paying for those ads . . . [would] be proud of the enemies I’ve made.”
On the opposite side, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., warned that requiring such big-donor disclosure was part of a Democratic plot to create a “modern-day Nixonian ‘enemies list.’” After the Supreme Court opened the door to such big donors, he said, “Democrats realized they couldn’t shut up their critics. So they decided to go after the microphone instead by trying to scare off the funders.”
To be sure, Congress has taken some significant actions this year, including a burst of constructive activity just before its Fourth of July recess to pass the highway, student loan and flood insurance bills before the current programs expired. But as the election approaches, much of the attention has turned to “show votes” and messaging.
Larry Sabato, director for the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, calls such symbolic legislative showdowns “demonstration votes.” Their purpose, he told U.S. News, is “to let your party base know you are with them and to force your opponents to vote the other way.”
While the DISCLOSE act has clear political implications, some of the other bills now being pushed by congressional Democrats are slightly more subtle in their back-door targeting of the presumed GOP presidential nominee, Mitt Romney.
On Wednesday, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., gave floor remarks and harangued reporters about the the Financial Disclosure to Reduce Tax Haven Abuse Act, which would require candidates for federal office and members of Congress to disclose any financial interest they or their spouses hold in offshore tax havens.
In the debate, Durbin, the No. 2 Senate Democratic leader, invoked the late Illinois senator – and presidential contender – Paul Simon, who was committed to financial transparency. While Simon said people could disagree with his stands, Durbin said Simon’s stance on full disclosure was: “I never want people to question my honesty in making a political decision.”
Levin, whose investigations subcommittee has probed the secrecy of offshore tax havens for several years, insisted that his recycled legislation “is not a new issue.” While Levin said that such inquiries into offshore accounts were bipartisan “in the past,” the implication is that they are indeed partisan during this election season.
In the House, Levin’s brother Rep. Sander Levin, D-Mich., the senior Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee, plans to introduce a bill to require presidential candidates to release 10 years of tax returns and more personal financial information. (So far, Romney has released two years of returns.)
The bill would require candidates to disclose information "not currently included on disclosures and not easily discernible from tax returns" and would help "provide a fuller picture of a candidate's financial holdings and interests,” said a committee news release.
Another popular issue is “outsourcing” – a trend of globalization for the past couple of decades that has now become political with disclosures that Romney’s former firm, Bain Capital, at times outsourced jobs of troubled companies it took over.
This week, the Senate started debating a White House-backed bill – the Bring Jobs Home Act, of which Durbin is a prime cosponsor – to encourage companies to bring jobs back to this country, while preventing companies from receiving tax breaks for shipping jobs overseas.
On the surface, the bill is about altering the U.S. tax code to encourage job creation and investment here – offering a 20 percent business credit for expenses relating to bringing jobs back to the U.S. and barring tax breaks for deducting expenses related to outsourcing. But an unstated target is clearly Romney’s Bain connection.
“Outsourcing American jobs to low-wage countries is unfair, unwise and puts hard-working, middle-class families on the line,” said Durbin. In Illinois alone, he said as many as 936,000 jobs are currently at risk of being sent abroad.
But Blunt describes the measure as “a messaging issue” for Democrats that would have “almost no economic impact” – given current trends. He and most other Senate Republicans voted Thursday to block a vote on the bill, which appeared to be dead.
McCaskill disagrees with Missouri's junior senator. "Right now, tax breaks go to companies that ship jobs to China, but companies wanting to move jobs back to Missouri are on their own—and that’s backwards," McCaskill said Thursday.
She had hoped to offer an amendment to the bill to require public companies to report how many workers they employ by country, a provision that McCaskill said would "shine some sunlight on companies shipping jobs overseas, requiring them to tell us what country’s workers they’d rather hire instead of hiring American workers."
Even when lawmakers debate some pressing issues – including this week’s Senate speeches on the severe military and non-defense budget cuts that would occur under “sequestration” if Congress takes no action by year’s end – the speeches tend to be aimed at November voters while the lawmakers know the votes are not likely to be case until the lame-duck session.
On Thursday morning, McConnell accused Democrats who don’t deal with sequestration and extending the Bush-era tax cuts this summer of threatening to drive the nation’s economy off the fiscal cliff.
“You might call it ‘Thelma and Louise’ economics — right off the cliff,” charged McConnell. Blunt, who is involved in Senate GOP messaging, complained that the Senate is “talking about things that have minimal impact on the economy when we could be taking about things that have lots of impact on the economy.”
But many Democrats say they want to use the threat of such automatic budget cuts for leverage to convince some Republicans to support revenue increases as a way of reducing the long-term budget deficit without huge cuts in government spending.
On Wednesday, Durbin scoffed at GOP Senate leaders who had supported the deficit reduction compromise last August that authorized the sequestration process – and are now railing against that budget-cutting trigger as devastating to defense.
Reading aloud the names of GOP senators who had supported the deficit reduction bill, Durbin said: “The entire Republican leadership team voted FOR what they are now branding as devastating and irresponsible.”