Posted on October 2, 2008
For those of us who love to watch the Congressional sausage-making progress, the Senate action yesterday was a thing of beauty.
I am not talking about the high-minded Senate bipartisanship. I am talking about how the Senate jammed the House in a high-stakes maneuver that will add a colorful chapter in the tense relations between the two chambers of the Congress.
It is said that a House elder, instructing a new member about the ways of life of the United State Congress, once exclaimed: “In the House, your colleague from the other party is merely your opponent. Never forget that the Senate is the enemy.”
For those who weren’t paying attention, the Senate pulled off quite a coup in their vote on economic stabilization measure that it passed onto the House yesterday. Not only did they attach this bill to an unrelated mental parity bill, they included in it a passel of tax extenders that had previously failed in the House.
The brawl between the House and Senate on the tax extender package was centered on one key philosophical question. Should the Congress attempt to be fiscally responsible in finding a way to make up the lost revenues that come from extending targeted tax measures. The House said yes, while the Senate said no.
This little argument was seemingly settled yesterday by the Senate, when their leaders attached the package of tax extenders to the highly anticipated credit-market rescue package and then sent it over to the House by a large margin. The problem for House leaders, especially for House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, is the promise that he made to the Blue Dog caucus that he would fight for them to get the extender paid for. Does Hoyer give up now that the Senate jammed him on the bigger package? Does he fight the Senate and further endanger the credit markets and the economy? Does he find a way to amend the package and try to rejam the Senate?
The history of relations between the House and Senate is replete with jam-jobs. In my own tenure in the House, I grew to have great disdain for the Senate as an institution. The war between the two Congressional bodies is intense and largely unnoticed by the public at large, but it is real and when it spills out into the open, it can be embarrassing.
In my career on the Hill, perhaps the highest profile example of institutional discord came in the wake of the anthrax attacks on the Capitol. When Senator Daschle’s office received an anthrax-laden letter into his office, the Congressional leaders briefed the President and agreed to close down the Capitol in order to keep the employees of the institution safe from possible harm. The House leaders dutifully told their members of the plan, and shut down their operations. Senate leaders, however, faced a rebellion among their colleagues, and chose to keep the Senate open.
The press reaction was harsh on the House. The New York Post had a memorable front-page banner headline, calling House leaders wimps. Suffice it to say, on a bipartisan basis, we were not amused by the Senate bravado. Working together with our Democratic colleagues, we went on a public relations offensive (working from our homes, since the House was closed) to tear down the Senate and their leadership.
Other examples come to mind. In the days following the 9/11 attacks, House Republicans internally debated whether to federalize airport screeners. Many House members were concerned about union rules, about the extra cost, and about the efficiency of making them federal employees. In the meantime, the Senate passed a bill 100-0, federalizing the screeners. The pressure on the House was so intense, that it eventually had to follow suit.
The House didn’t always lose. When the Senate passed narrow legislation to create an Amber alert by a wide margin, intense pressure was put on the House to simply send the bill to the President. Jim Sensenbrenner, who was Chairman the House Judiciary Committee, resisted that impulse, choosing to add other provisions to the moving train that he couldn’t get done otherwise. He ultimately prevailed.
Today, the House leaders face a difficult choice. Go along with the Senate and make the credit markets happy or confront the Senate and make their members happy. It is a tough call, but Pelosi and Hoyer need to remember that the longer this legislation hangs out there, the more intense the institutional fights get, and the more petty the fights seem, the worse it is for the Congress in general. And with approval ratings of the institution hovering around 15 percent, House incumbents can ill afford any more bad press.
This is a classic jam-job by the Senate, and there doesn’t seem to be much that the House can do about it.