At a roundtable on June 13 with African American journalists and U.S. Senators, Washington Post writer Jonathan Capehart asked an interesting question that livened things up.
If President Obama sent Congress a definable “black agenda, how dead-on-arrival would such a piece of legislation be?” he asked. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) answered: It would be dead-on-arrival in the House but not the Senate. But Capehart’s question indicates an obvious truth: Of course a straight up-and-down vote on say, on the Urban Jobs Act, would fail in the House and be filibustered in the Senate.
What was missed is that policy often becomes law without specific up-and-down votes on specific pieces of legislation. That’s how the Patriot Act reauthorization, the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Bill and unemployment benefits became law over the last few years. That’s how the estate tax was made permanent in January. That’s how more mandatory minimums are usually added to law. It’s almost never a straight up and down vote. How did the Thompson Prison boondoggle in Illinois by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) happen? That was a $165,000 earmark so there could be jobs. These things happened because someone was there to fight on those issues and they won during negotiations.
You know those annoyning times when President Obama, Biden, Harry Reid and the gang meet with Speaker Boehner, Eric Cantor and Mitch McConnell 162,819 times as they shuttle back and fourth down Penn. Ave. during negotiations? The first Bush tax cut extension in late 2010, the “shutdown” deal, the debt ceiling talks and the fiscal cliff deal were all such occasions.
And what exactly happened? Each side crammed stuff they liked into the deals. Some of it was pre-offered “DOA” legislation. Republicans attached the estate tax extension (cost: $1.3 trillion) for their top donors during the fiscal cliff deal. Democrats added unemployment benefits along with the child tax credit. Sometimes these negotiated add ons to big fat bills are called riders, sometimes “pork.” What parties fight for speaks volumes. See the fiscal cliff bill pork here.
Since 2010 when Rs took the House, the few laws they’ve passed have been parts of big “deals.” Making law by way of deals is why Boehner said, back on January 2, that he’d never negotiate with Obama one-on-one again. Of course, a few things were getting done. The do-nothing obstructionists who hate government and the President were ready to toss Boehner. Negotiations were yielding results and they couldn’t have that.
What if President Obama and his team had pushed for summer jobs or the urban jobs act during a deal and said: “It’s either in the bill or I’ll allow the Bush tax cuts to expire… wave goodbye to the estate tax breaks…” What would have happened?
The Matthew Shephard hate Crimes Act was attached to the massive Defense Authorization Bill in 2009. Even though the Democrats controlled the Senate and House at the time — a straight up and down vote on the Matthew Shepard bill didn’t happen. That’s probably because members did not want to be on record. Bottom line is: the legislation is now law.