In a Congress crippled by partisan gridlock, each side is increasingly transparent about its political motivations. It used to be that the various press operations would spin and the leaders would at least pretend to lead. But in recent years, all pretense has fallen away.
Last week, for example, when asked about the status of a jobs proposal, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) came clean about the factors affecting his scheduling of votes — mainly the desire for media coverage. “We’re not going to do that at midnight tonight. We’re going to have the votes when you folks can write about it during a decent news cycle,” Reid told reporters on Thursday.
On Wednesday, rather than huddling for negotiations or voting on different proposals, the Senate opened for business at 11:30 a.m. and closed its doors a little past 6 p.m., without holding any roll call votes. The House, meanwhile, approved an anti-regulatory bill that GOP leaders first discussed putting to a vote in late August.
At dueling news conferences, Senate Democrats and House Republicans pushed their competing versions of how to extend a payroll tax holiday that puts about $1,000 a year into the pockets of an average worker.
They acknowledged that those proposals, which could come to votes in the Senate on Friday and in the House early next week, would not constitute elements of a final deal but instead are intended as leverage to put political pressure on the other side.
On Tuesday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) cautioned that Congress is still in the “designed to fail” stage on many proposals that will be voted on as part of a year-end stimulus package.
There were votes last Thursday in the Senate that failed but met Reid’s desire for a “decent news cycle”: They happened before 9 p.m.
First, the majority leader’s proposal to extend the payroll tax holiday, with an accompanying surtax on those making at least $1 million, could not overcome a GOP filibuster threat. Then, McConnell’s counter-proposal drew just 20 votes.
So it goes in Washington, where last-minute year-end legislation remains stuck in the “message-vote” phase.
And everyone, it seems, is playing the role of press secretary.
Sensing Republican disunity on the payroll tax holiday, Democrats said Wednesday that their goal now is to force at least another vote to turn up the political pressure on GOP senators.
“If you don’t keep at it, you’re not going to change their view. The purpose is that the public comes to our side on this issue and they feel it. That’s very simple, and that’s what we should be doing,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.). “You don’t just vote once, they vote no and [you] say ‘never mind,’ if you feel it’s a very important issue.”
Some consider these “show votes” increasingly tedious and counterproductive. The process has left some rank-and-file lawmakers less engaged. And greater media attention has made the public more aware than ever that some proposals are just for show.
“I guess I did show votes,” former Senate majority leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) mused Wednesday during a visit to the Capitol.
He said that during his reign in the late 1990s, those first votes usually had a clear purpose: setting up a final showdown to which almost everyone knew the outcome. But these days, even that small measure of certainty is missing.
“Does anybody know the endgame here today? Everybody’s so frustrated, they’ve all got a hangdog look,” Lott said of his former colleagues.
Perhaps the biggest change in the decade since Lott ran the Senate is the sheer willingness of leaders to admit their political intentions.
McConnell, in particular, can be especially blunt. On Tuesday, he dismissed the latest proposal from Reid — which included a smaller surtax on millionaires — as “another show vote designed to fail.” Republicans would announce an alternative “later in the week” and try for a vote on that plan along with Reid’s new measure, McConnell told Bloomberg News.
But even the latest proposal expected from McConnell should not be considered real.
“The real vote will be before we leave here,” he said, referring to the Dec. 16 target date for adjournment.
Lott said the era of never-ending “show votes” began about five years ago, when he started contemplating retirement. “There were a couple of votes I was actually ashamed of,” said Lott, who quit four years ago this month and now works at the law and lobbying firm Patton Boggs. “I was getting cynical, and that’s not my nature.”