Published May 14, 2012
WASHINGTON – Congress is producing little this election year that will become law, yet both parties are churning out bills designed to make the other side look bad.
Take a look at separate measures that would protect women from violence, keep student loan rates low and build roads and bridges. Each is a widely shared goal and seemingly easy to enact. But the proposals are caught in pitched battles, each party adding language that infuriates the other.
As a result, the Democratic-led Senate and Republican-run House are writing legislation that dies right away or is assured of going nowhere in the other chamber. Instead of laws, the bills generate grist for fundraising pitches and campaign attack ads.
"It was, 'Let's put a bill on the floor that we know Republicans will never support, designed specifically to fail, so we can then spend the week talking about this on the Sunday talk shows and speeches on the floor and missives from the campaign,'" Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., complained last week after GOP senators voted in virtual lockstep to block Democrats' student loan bill.
The constant wrangling is doing little to appease voters. In this month's Associated Press-GfK poll, only 18 percent gave favorable grades to Congress. That was slightly better than last summer, but still dreadfully low.
The student loan bill underscored the partisan positioning afoot.
Want to keep interest rates on subsidized Stafford loans from doubling for 7.4 million undergraduates on July 1? If you were a House Democrat, you had to vote for a GOP bill financed by obliterating a preventive health program created by President Barack Obama's cherished health care overhaul.
If you were a Senate Republican, you had to support a Democratic bill financed by boosting payroll taxes on upscale owners of some privately owned companies — a nonstarter for most Republicans.
Not surprisingly, there were few takers, and neither chamber produced a bill that had any prospect of final approval.
Democrats denied their motivation was producing fodder for campaigns. But they accused House Republicans of doing just that with a highway bill that requires construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada to the Texas Gulf Coast, which Obama and many Democrats have opposed for environmental reasons.
"We ought to quit taking jabs at one another to score political points," said Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va.
The tactic has been given the nickname "poison pill" because it sometimes causes the demise of the legislation to which the provision is attached.
"They do it because, in part, voters are not fully informed about legislation and a lot of votes are difficult to understand," said Marc Meredith, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania who has studied voters' decision making. "You can put members of Congress in a tough spot because voters aren't fully informed about why members voted in a certain way."
Shortly after the House voted April 27 to approve the GOP student loan bill, paid for by cutting Obama's health overhaul and supported by just 13 Democrats, Republicans sent news releases to dozens of congressional districts.
Democrats decided "protecting the Democrats' government takeover of health care was more important than helping future college graduates," the releases said.
Democrats argued it was wrong to cut health care programs to keep student loan interest rates from growing. Yet they were happy to use the tactic after two-thirds of Republican senators voted against a Democratic bill extending programs to protect women from violence and adding new protections for gays and transgender people.
Republicans said Democrats purposely inserted those provisions to make it impossible for many GOP senators to vote "yes." But that didn't stop a fundraising email by House Democrats' campaign arm accusing the GOP of "trying to derail the Violence Against Women Act."
"We can't let Republicans Etch A Sketch away their destructive war on women," it added. That was a reference to a remark by a top aide to GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney about the candidate's ability to recalibrate his positions for the general election.
The parties often disagree over whether a provision is a purposeful poison pill or simply a demonstration of the majority's ability to write bills reflecting their own priorities.
A GOP measure the House will debate this week renewing violence against women programs drops the Senate-approved language protecting people based on their sexual orientation. It would make it harder for abused illegal immigrants to stay in the U.S. unless they cooperate in investigations about their allegations.
That language is "a poison pill and obnoxious" and will cause many Democrats to oppose the overall bill, said Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y. "It's changing the law in a way we can't accept because it will make more women get battered" because their cooperation would make them vulnerable to further abuse from their spouses, he said.
Rep. Sandy Adams, the bill's chief sponsor, said that provision was not a poison pill. Adams, R-Fla., said it was included to try reducing fraudulent claims of abuse "so the money we're providing goes to victims and their services.
"At the end of the day, I'd hope everyone agrees that we want these services provided for our victims," she said.
Other instances in which one side included language sure to cause the other party to oppose a bill that otherwise seemed destined for approval include:
— A bill last summer financing Federal Aviation Administration programs. House Republicans inserted language overturning an agency rule making it easier for airline and railroad workers to unionize;
— Last winter's bitter fight over extending Social Security payroll tax cuts through 2012. An early Senate Democratic bill financed the cost with a tax on people earning over $1 million a year, while a GOP version trimmed the federal bureaucracy and extended a pay freeze on civil servants.
— Bills financing the Iraq war under President George W. Bush, into which House Democrats put language forcing troop withdrawals.