Reelection fever broke out on Capitol Hill last month. Members of Congress get desperate in the last days before the voters pass judgment on them. Last minute maneuvers are injected into the campaign game plan in the hope of pleasing important blocs of constituents -- or at least not antagonizing them.
Here are some of the more flagrant symptoms of this election year's congressional fever.
The Democratic leadership called a lame-duck session to consider the budget -- thereby avoiding a pre-election vote on what could be a $50-billion deficit. The leaders had no desire to let the Republicans remind voters of the Democrats' promise last spring to produce a balanced budget.
The budget was supposed to be the only matter taken up in the lame-duck session. But sponsors of controversial bills found the temptation to avoid a showdown before Election Day to be irresistible. "The lame-duck session has become a dumping ground for controversial legislation," moaned one congressman to my associate Peter Grant. "We'll be here till Christmas."
The controversial vote on the mass-transit bill, with an amendment that would limit accessibility to the handicapped, was conveniently put off. "No one wants their campaign headquarters being picketed by people in wheelchairs," Rep. James Howard (D-N.J.), the bill's sponsor, explained. But he insisted that the rights of the handicapped will not be compromised in the post-election session.
Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) tried to score points with Kansas veterans groups, who want to rename the veterans' hospital in Topeka after two national commanders of the American Legion. Dole attached the name change as an amendment to a $1 billion veterans' compensation bill, and threatened to hold up the bill unless the House accepted the hospital name change. At the last minute, the House refused; if Dole had made good on his threat, all the Kansas veterans would be deprived of increased payments. The senator withdrew his amendment.
Despite the Carter-Kennedy primary battle, the Democratic Party leadership has closed the ranks to protect its members. Sources say House Speaker O'Neill succeeded in getting the White House to pump federal funds into the Arizona district of Rep. Morris Udall, a Kennedy-backer, who is in the reelection fight of his life.
The Democratic leadership is also turning a relatively cold shoulder to members who have been less than true-blue. "We're putting money with the people who have helped us." said one top party official.
Congressmen hungry for last-minute attention from the voters use all the perks and power at their disposal. For example, Rep. John LaFalce (D-N.Y.) called an oversight hearing for his small business subcommittee just eight days before the election -- giving him a good chance to speak out against government procurement abuses. And when the Energy Department was considering the termination of a solar energy project in the home district of House Majority Leader Jim Wright (D-Tex.), he whipped off a letter to Energy Secretary Charles Duncan: "I sincerely hope that this represents a mere contingency plan. If the DOE budget must be reduced, surely there must be other, less visible ways to do it."
Nominees to federal judgeships and other posts requiring Senate confirmation are traditionally innocent victims of reelection fever. The Republicans seemed determined this year to stall every White House appointment they could until after the election. But they surprised Democratic opponents by a last-minute decision to let 11 federal judgeships be voted on. The makeup of the nominees explains this apparent act of charity: seven of the 11 were wither black, female or Mexican American. The Republicans weren't about to give the Democrats ammunition by blocking the appointments.
One benevolent symptom of reelection fever is the incumbent's suddenly increased concern for his constituents. While baby-kissing is a dying political art, baby care is still a good ploy. Each member of Congress is entitled to 6,000 copies of the government's excellent books on infant and child care to give to his constituents. The house doorkeeper's office, which handles the distribution, reported an unusually high demand for the books in the last few days before the congressional recess.