I try to avoid clichés like the plague (smirk). But Otto von Bismarck nailed it when he said no one should ever watch the making of sausage or laws.
The past two-and-a-half weeks on Capitol Hill is a case study in Bismarck’s observation.
It started the late afternoon of Sept. 18. It was a Thursday. And of all places, I was off fishing around in the gloom of the Rayburn House Office Building parking garage. A source had just tipped me that embattled Rep. Charlie Rangel, D-N.Y., requested that they tow his inoperable, unregistered Mercedes-Benz because it was a violation of House rules.
Then came another tip: Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson and Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke were coming to the Capitol. This was strange enough. But they were coming to see the top congressional leaders from both parties. And they would huddle that evening in the speaker’s office.
I’ve been around Capitol Hill long enough to have developed what I call journalistic “Spidey-senses.” You can tell when something is off — members whisper in the back of the chamber, or usually loquacious sources turn mum.
And after Bernanke and Paulson met with leaders in the suite of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., that Thursday night, I knew something was different. One by one, the representatives and the senators filed out, heads down. Their comments trite but grave.
I saw fear.
On my way home, I called my dad back in Ohio and told him what I saw. Born in 1931, he’s a child of the Great Depression. We talked about news of banks and investment firms teetering on the brink. Dad spoke of how tough times were when he was a child and how no one could get credit.
Wondering about where we all should stash our savings, I told Dad I had one word of advice: mattress.
My father countered with two: coffee can.
Fast forward to Monday. I arrived at the Capitol a little after 8 a.m. in anticipation of the big vote in the House. The whole congressional campus seemed jittery and tense.
The big vote loomed mid-day with the aim to get lawmakers out before Rosh Hashanah started at sundown. But with scores of skeptical lawmakers on both sides, the necessary votes seemed like phantasms.
Still, I remembered a couple of dictums about the House.
First, never underestimate the power of leadership to “grow” a vote on the floor. Once the bells ring signaling the vote is hot, the House floor evolves into a legislative crucible. I spoke on the air about how some lawmakers dodge the congressional whips or hide in the cloakroom to keep from getting the business from leaders to try to switch their positions.
I also remembered that rarely does the leadership bring a measure to the floor that it doesn’t think it can pass.
Defeat is rare on the floor. So while this seemed like a risky strategy, I speculated it was a calculated risk. I presumed the leaders had the votes stashed somewhere in their hip pockets that even my Spidey-sense couldn’t detect.
I worked the phone. I roamed the halls. I chatted up sources. I watched body language. The Democrats were adamant they needed 100 Republican votes to lug this across the finish line. But scouring my sources only yielded anywhere from 40 to 60 votes from the Republicans. I didn’t see how it was going pass.
But as the vote drew closer, something hit me: Democrats may have committed strategic errors in four key areas.
1) Follow the Leader:
For starters, nobody said the House had to go first. It was widely known the measure carried far broader support in the Senate. When possible, it’s good practice to initiate legislation in the body that can easily pass something. That builds momentum and pressure for the other body to act.
2) Canceling Recess:
Secondly, the House leadership wasn’t using one of its most powerful tools in its arsenal: the threat of missing a Congressional recess.
Congressional leaders routinely use big breaks as leverage against lawmakers. Three years ago, Congress stayed in session until nearly Christmas as they scrapped over drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). It’s a tactic. Leaders hold members hostage with the threat that they might not get home to trim the tree and watch their kids open their presents and trim the three. And all of a sudden, the congressional equivalent of the Stockholm Syndrome sets in. Lawmakers’ once-steeled positions start to waver. And pretty soon, the rank-and-file will vote for anything just to escape the asylum.
Here, the leaders assured members they would be getting off for the holiday no matter what.
3) The Dracula Effect:
They weren’t holding Monday’s vote late at night. Congress doesn’t deliberately try to hold crucial votes past the witching hour. But often, that's when issues ripen.
This usually wears down those lawmakers who are cranky and sleep-deprived (read: most of them). And while no one will admit it, they don’t mind having lawmakers stagger back into the House chamber after they’ve had a nip of gin back in their office or downed a few beers at Bullfeathers behind the Cannon House Office Building.
There’s the trick of holding the vote open. In November 2003, the House started a vote at precisely 3 a.m. on a Saturday to add a prescription drug benefit for seniors. The Republican leadership then held the vote open for a record two hours and 50 minutes. After the vote, former Rep. Nick Smith, R-Mich., suggested that the GOP leadership tried to bribe him on the floor for his vote.
I asked how that strong-arming was different than what they do every day up there: barter for votes. The reason it seemed like a bribe to Smith is that they held open what is usually a 15- or 20-minute vote for nearly three hours. Holding the vote open so long is like keeping the aperture on a camera open too long. The result produces an overexposed photo. And that’s why it was possible then to see how Machiavellian the horse-trading can be.
For Monday’s vote, the House pulled none of these levers. And that has a lot to do with why the tally failed.
But, if we're looking for morals to this story, I know that sometimes a tough bill has to fail first in order to succeed later. Kind of like what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
Late Tuesday night, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., stunned everyone when they announced they’d throw the financial rescue bill on the floor Wednesday. I’ll call this approach the Mikey Method.
Remember Mikey? He was the finicky child who “hates everything” from the '70s and '80s Life Cereal commercials. In them, Mikey’s pals sit around the breakfast table and refuse to audition a bowl of Life. “I’m not going to try it,” they intone as they shove the bowl around. It finally winds up in front of Mikey who begins to devour the stuff. “He likes it, he likes it!” they exclaimed.
Reid and McConnell knew they had to play the role of Mikey. They thought they could muscle the bill through the Senate and show that if the Mikeys in the Senate “tried it” and “liked it,” the skeptical House would find it palatable. And sure enough, that was the case on Friday as the vote total swelled from Monday's count.
There were a combination of other things that triggered Friday’s successful House vote: The Senate maneuvering, the Dow flat-lining during Monday’s session and a ripening of the issue. Monday's defeat and grim concerns about the economy forced scores of lawmakers to switch their votes. And the measure enjoyed a wide victory.
Some lawmakers complained of the "pork" in the final version of the bill, though it wasn't technically pork.
No, back to Bismarck — it was real American sausage.
Chad Pergram covers Congress for FOX News. He’s earned an Edward R. Murrow Award and the Joan Barone Award for his reporting from Capitol Hill.