Why Congress Sometimes Can’t Even Pass Moderate, Bipartisan Bills

Key Conservative Stance: Sen. David Vitter (R-LA) cast one of the two votes against confirming New York Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton as secretary of state, although her qualifications for the job were not an issue. Vitter has opposed much of the Obama administration agenda.
National Journal
Clare Foran and Elahe Izadi
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Clare Foran and Elahe Izadi
Sept. 15, 2013, 8:35 a.m.

With the de­bate over Syr­ia on hold, the Sen­ate’s re­turn to busi­ness began simply enough last week with a mod­er­ate en­ergy bill, the first in six years. Surely, Con­gress could work on a piece of le­gis­la­tion that has been hammered out over two years and en­joys wide, bi­par­tis­an sup­port.

But by week’s end, work on the bill came to a halt as one law­maker in­sisted on a vote over an un­re­lated, polit­ic­al di­vis­ive is­sue: Obama­care.

The en­ergy bill’s fate demon­strates that even when law­makers can over­come the dif­fi­cult polit­ics of any par­tic­u­lar is­sue — in this case, en­ergy policy — it isn’t al­ways enough to pass le­gis­la­tion through reg­u­lar or­der.

“Things are so bad right now that even a bill that has been rad­ic­ally watered down can’t get through the Sen­ate without get­ting wrapped up in pro­ced­ur­al shenanigans,” says Jim Man­ley, former top aide to Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id.

In this case, Sen. Dav­id Vit­ter, R-La., in­sisted on a vote on his amend­ment to re­quire law­makers and staff to pur­chase in­sur­ance through the new health care ex­changes cre­ated in the Af­ford­able Care Act, and not get the usu­al sub­sidies they re­ceive for fed­er­al health in­sur­ance.

Re­pub­lic­ans main­tain that their staunch op­pos­i­tion to Obama­care is jus­ti­fied be­cause the law is un­pop­u­lar. Ac­cord­ing to a poll from the Kais­er Fam­ily Found­a­tion, 42 per­cent of Amer­ic­ans have an un­fa­vor­able view of the law.

Ob­serv­ers also say that the le­gis­lat­ive pro­cess and lack of pro­ductiv­ity is to blame. With so few bills mov­ing through reg­u­lar or­der — mean­ing via the com­mit­tee pro­cess and tra­di­tion­al rules — many law­makers jump on any vehicle to ad­dress their is­sues.

“Part of the dif­fi­culty is, so few bills come to the floor that every­body views each bill as the last life­boat get­ting ready to sail off in­to the ho­ri­zon,” said McK­ie Camp­bell, a part­ner at Blue­Wa­ter Strategies and former staff dir­ect­or for Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska. “You end up with all the folks in the wa­ter, des­per­ately try­ing to get aboard and all the people in the boat already try­ing to beat them off with the oars, and it just doesn’t func­tion well.”

When the Sen­ate uses reg­u­lar or­der, things get less des­per­ate, Camp­bell said. “Reg­u­lar or­der works more like a train sta­tion. One comes in and people get on to where they’re go­ing, but the oth­er people in the sta­tion know that an­oth­er train is com­ing along in 10 minutes,” he said.

As the Sen­ate floor de­bate dragged on last week, a num­ber of law­makers ex­pressed their ex­as­per­a­tion over what was hap­pen­ing to the en­ergy bill.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., who sponsored the bill with Sen. Rob Port­man, R-Ohio, even offered to go with Vit­ter to lead­er­ship to se­cure an agree­ment on when the Obama­care amend­ment could be ad­dressed. Vit­ter re­jec­ted the of­fer and wanted noth­ing short of a guar­an­tee of a vote on his amend­ment be­fore Oct. 1, when en­roll­ment in the health ex­changes be­gins.

“All I’m ask­ing for is for a vote on a very im­port­ant is­sue,” Vit­ter said. “There is no host­age-tak­ing here, there is no hold­ing any­thing up.”

Said Shaheen: “He’s talk­ing about want­ing to get a vote on his le­gis­la­tion. Sen. Port­man and I have been wait­ing for three years to get a vote on our le­gis­la­tion, and for something that has over­whelm­ing sup­port.”

The Shaheen-Port­man bill was de­signed to be un­con­tro­ver­sial. Un­like the last en­ergy bill in 2007, which con­tained a num­ber of fed­er­al man­dates, Shaheen-Port­man re­lies on a host of vol­un­tary meas­ures. The only pro­vi­sion of the le­gis­la­tion which must be car­ried out is in­creased en­ergy-ef­fi­ciency stand­ards for the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment.

This has made the bill more pal­at­able to law­makers who have be­come wary of man­dates like the re­new­able-fuel stand­ard, a fed­er­al pro­gram re­quir­ing re­finers to blend bio­fuels with gas­ol­ine. “We’ve gone out of our way to make this a vol­un­tary bill, not a man­date bill,” Port­man said on the Sen­ate floor Thursday.

The bill also won ap­prov­al from or­gan­iz­a­tions that don’t typ­ic­ally agree on policy is­sues. The U.S. Cham­ber of Com­merce and en­vir­on­ment­al groups such as the Nat­ur­al Re­sources De­fense Coun­cil back the un­der­ly­ing bill.

In­deed, get­ting le­gis­la­tion to the floor by elim­in­at­ing con­tro­ver­sial ele­ments can have some draw­backs.

“They’ve been work­ing on this for a long time, and they’ve gone in and, frankly, re­moved everything that could be con­ceiv­ably ob­jec­tion­able to people,” Camp­bell says. “Part of the prob­lem of re­mov­ing everything that could con­ceiv­ably be ob­jec­tion­able is you’ve prob­ably lost some fierce ad­vocacy.”

More than 80 amend­ments already have been sub­mit­ted on the en­ergy bill, in­clud­ing the En­ergy Sav­ings through Pub­lic-Private Part­ner­ships Act from Sen. Chris­toph­er Coons, D-Del. It’s part of a broad­er le­gis­lat­ive pack­age put to­geth­er by the No La­bels Prob­lem Solv­ers co­ali­tion, a bi­par­tis­an group of law­makers from the Sen­ate and the House who are call­ing for an end to the sharp par­tis­an di­vide that has be­come a stand­ard fea­ture of the 113th Con­gress.

But that amend­ment, like all of the oth­ers, can’t move ahead be­cause of Vit­ter’s call for an Obama­care vote. No La­bels cofounder and Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion seni­or fel­low Bill Gal­ston calls the Vit­ter hol­dup on an un­re­lated “mat­ter of in­tract­able dis­agree­ment” an­oth­er ex­ample of par­tis­an grid­lock.

“That’s an in­dic­a­tion that there are some people who are more in­ter­ested in scor­ing polit­ic­al points [than] in solv­ing spe­cif­ic prob­lems, and that’s very re­gret­table be­cause we all pay for that,” he said.

Gal­ston says there is plenty of sup­port among the Amer­ic­an pub­lic for pla­cing prob­lem-solv­ing at the root of any le­gis­lat­ive work. And des­pite the en­ergy bill’s hol­dup, which stalled a piece of the Prob­lem Solv­ers co­ali­tion’s le­gis­lat­ive pack­age, mem­bers of the co­ali­tion are “not dis­cour­aged in any way.”

“They think this fight is just the be­gin­ning, and they’re con­vinced that the people are be­hind them,” Gal­ston says. “What keeps me go­ing every day is the be­lief that ul­ti­mately, in a demo­cracy, you can’t keep on do­ing what the people don’t like in­def­in­itely without gen­er­at­ing a real, pop­u­lar back­lash to your re­fus­al to listen to them.”

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