Tuesday, November 16, 2004

How to Piss off the Democrats by Really Really Trying

Tapped provides insight into the Republican theory of passing bills: If a Democrat's voting for it, then something's wrong:
"FORCED INTO IRRELEVANCE: In a post otherwise addressing a slightly different question, Mark Schmitt makes this observation:
"I've noted in the past the tendency in Republican congressional politics, particularly in the House, to take pride in slipping something through with the bare minimum number of votes. The last tax cut bill was an example.
That this is the congressional strategy has begun to seem clear to me, although it's a radical innovation. Hastert and DeLay's insight seems to be that a bill that gets 218 votes in the House is just as much the law as one that gets 430. And for every vote they add on to the necessary minimum majority, they might have to compromise in some unnecessary way, whether with Democrats or their own fiscal conservatives. In other words, they see every vote over a bare majority as the equivalent of leaving money on the table or overbidding in an auction."

I don’t really have much special insight to offer here, but I thought this passage from Lou Dubose and Jan Reid’s new book on Tom DeLay was helpful in shedding a bit of light on the Republicans' 50%+1 strategy in Congress:
"DeLay prefers a polarized House in which the adversarial relationship between Republicans and Democrats is institutionalized. 'A number of times the Republican majority could pass a bill by 300 votes,' said a veteran House staffer who has worked for the Democratic leadership. 'A bill that has that type of potential. Then they yank it to the conservative side so it passes 220-210...There’s a mentality in the Republican leadership that if a significant number of Democrats support a bill somehow it’s tainted.
'Part of it goes back to the K Street thing, where they want to be able to say to their funders that the only people who can deliver anything for you are Republicans.' If House Republicans can make their Democratic counterparts irrelevant to the process of passing the nation’s laws, they can make them irrelevant to big political contributors."

The hardnosed, 'why compromise at all?' mentality that Schmitt describes is certainly a big part of it, but just as clearly there appears to be a strategic component to the House GOP’s deliberate sidelining of Democratic cooperation or input: The 50%+1 strategy, just like the K Street Project, is in part designed to help render the Democrats a permanent congressional minority. At all times, it's part of the Republican leadership’s decision-making and legislative calculus to try to lend substance to DeLay spokesman Stuart Roy’s characterization of the Democrats as simply 'irrelevant.'"

A superb example of this was the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, better known as "Laci and Conner's Law." The underlying premise of the law was unanimously supported: Murderers who also kill a fetus when killing a pregnant women should be punished more harshly than if they just kill a women. Obviously, this was an idea that garned support across party lines. In terms of achieving this objective, there were two ways to go about it when writing the law. Either 1) You could make the murder of a fetus while killing a pregenant women an aggrevating factor to the crime, which would allow for upward adjustment of sentences or 2) you could make the fetus a "person" under law, so that the crime is actually two counts of murder instead of one (which also would allow for harsher sentences). The UVVA used the latter tactic.

The problem with this is that by defining a fetus as a "person," there are obvious overtones to the abortion debate. While the bill specifically exempted abortion from its scope, many Democrats worried that the GOP was trying to create a "legislative trail" defining a fetus as a person in order to provide the grounds for overruling Roe v. Wade. Hence, many Democrats were reluctant to vote for the bill in that form. In order to rectify this, Representative Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) submitted what's known as "the Lofgren Amendment" (officially the "Motherhood Protection Act of 2001"), which had the same goal as the UVVA but adapted the former (aggrevating factor) tactic in order to achieve it. By not making the fetus a person, it neatly sidesteps the abortion debate while still increasing the punishment for those who kill a fetus along with the mother. In other words, the Lofgren Amendment is a plan that everyone can agree on, while the UVVA is a plan that only some people can agree on.

Needless to say, the House rejected the Lofgren amendment 229-196, then passed the UVVA 252-172. Democrats uneasy about the abortion implications were caught in a tough spot, to go on the record as opposing "Laci and Conner's Law" is a PR disaster. Many Democrats in swing districts had no political choice but to support the final bill, reservations not withstanding.

The point here isn't whether or not a fetus is a person. That particular debate most certainly needs to occur, but it should occur directly and not via underhanded measures in unrelated bills. The point is that, given a choice on whether or not to achieve the same objective bipartisanly or unipartisanly, the GOP leadership chose the latter. The best thing that can be said about the Republican tactics on this issue is that they deliberately and needlessly alienated the entire Democratic house legislation for partisan political gain. The worst case is that they did all that AND tried to endrun around the discursive channels for the abortion debate. Neither should be tolerable, but unfortunately both are emblematic of Tom DeLay's style of doing business.

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