Twisting Arms and Other Legislative Terms of Art
Posted on March 15, 2017
As the Republicans work to pass a budget, Obamacare replacement, and corporate tax reform in the next several months, here are some useful insider terms that might be bandied about by Members and staff alike as the process moves forward.
This legislation has no chance to pass the other body. It is awfully hard to get Members to commit to voting for legislation that they know has no chance to become law. This is especially difficult in the House, which tends to try to push the envelope on legislation ideologically, either on the left or the right.
In Bill Clinton’s first term, he included in his budget a proposal to increase taxes on energy by using the British Thermal Unit as the basis for assessing taxes. A precursor to the carbon tax idea that is floating around, it became a key component in a House budget proposal that predictably raised taxes to pay for more spending. It proved to be controversial though, and while House Democrats included it in their budget, which barely passed, the Senate never took it up. That vote hurt the electoral prospects of many Blue Dog Democrats and the Republicans were able to seize control of the House for the first time in forty years because of it. Being BTU’d means voting for a provision that will never become law and getting killed for it.
Fix it in Conference
During the Contract with America in 1995, Republicans rushed through a historic number of legislative bills in the first 100 days. Because the Republicans had little experience in actually running the House of Representatives and because they had made promises, in writing, that they knew that had to keep, the details didn’t matter nearly as much as the idea that the legislation was passing the House. The rallying cry among the Whip Office at the time was that we would fix in conference. We knew that what was going to pass the House was merely a rough first draft and that the edit would happen first in Senate, and then in a conference committee that included both Representatives and Senators.
Dark of Night
Monumental legislation never passes in the middle of the day. Exhaustion becomes a key weapon in reaching agreement. And things always take longer to draft and put into legislative form than anybody anticipates. I remember well when the Republican House took up the Medicare Modernization Act. The debate concluded around 3 AM and the House vote was kept open until around 6 AM. As dawn was breaking around the Capitol, legislators filed out, looking for breakfast and wondering how they were going to pay for a new entitlement.
Leaders on both sides of the Capitol often threatens to cancel district work periods and scrap Congressional delegation trips abroad unless progress is made on certain legislative items. The term “jet fumes” refers to the idea that Members would rather go home to see their families or take trips to exotic locales than continue their obstruction on legislative priorities. That’s why most major legislation is scheduled the week before a holiday, like Easter, Memorial Day, July 4th or that most important of Congressional holidays, the August break.
The tools for the Whip team aren’t as formidable as they once were. It used to be that the Leadership could promise certain “earmarks” in exchange for votes on non-affiliated legislation. Another factor weakening the power of the leadership is term limits placed on Committee Chairman. When Dan Rostenkowski was the powerful Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, he had fearsome power which he wielded to punish wayward Members who didn’t support his agenda. Now the Whip and the Speaker, without the power of earmarks, and Committee Chairman, who are term limited and aren’t necessarily feared by their colleagues, are relegated to making policy arguments and hoping that presidential charm might do the trick. Twisting arms ain’t what it used to be.