Read the Fine Print

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There’s an old adage about “reading the fine print.”

Well, that’s what Republicans want you to do. Especially when it comes to political campaign ads that will hit the airwaves this fall.

You’ve witnessed this drill before. In just a few months, TV stations will start showing political ads filled with ominous music, warning that Congressman so-and-so cast some dastardly vote on the House floor.

“Can you believe he even voted to (insert alleged transgression here),” the announcer will intone incredulously as the music swells.

And if you have any doubt that the Congressman didn’t vote that way, no worries. Just check out the fine print at the bottom of the TV screen. That’s where you’ll find the date and roll call vote number. Still don’t believe it? Well, you can look up that roll call vote on your own. That’s where you’ll unearth the smoking gun of where the lawmaker in question practically voted to terminate life as we currently know it here on planet Earth.

How could you possibly re-elect someone who voted like that?

Easy. If you understand what went into generating that roll call vote in question.

I’m now going to reveal the mechanics of what goes into producing that fine print that enables politicians to accuse their opponents of casting such contemptible votes in Congress.

Republicans have enjoyed two big wins on the House floor in as many weeks. They didn’t pass a package to slash government spending. They didn’t repeal the health care law.  They didn’t undo the government bailout package known as TARP.

No. Republicans forced Democrats to take two tough votes and made the majority Democrats scrap a piece of legislation for another day. This is what counts as victories for the minority in the House. Unlike the Senate, which actually awards the minority party, the majority dominates the House. So it’s significant when Republicans eke out a win.

In their quest to gain control of the House, Republicans have perfected a clever technique to try to cast their counterparts in the worst light possible. And these recent episodes reveal how a creative use of the rules can blow up the process or make the other side take a vote that could come back to haunt them.

Which is precisely what Republicans have done on the two major pieces of legislation in the past two weeks.

On most House bills, the minority is granted what’s called a “motion to recommit,” or “MTR” in Congressional jargon. MTR’s are the bullet that the majority party gives to the minority to alter or sometimes even kill a piece of legislation. In essence, the MTR is a “move” to “recommit” the bill to committee. Often the House deals with a “Motion to Recommit With Instructions.” That means the House could “instruct” a committee to change the bill in certain ways.

Since Democrats seized control of the House in early 2007, Republicans have increasingly used MTR’s to put Democrats in awkward positions. The best example came in March, 2007. Lawmakers debated whether to award the District of Columbia a seat in the House. Republicans concocted a motion to recommit that dealt with firearms. The MTR made many conservative, pro-Second Amendment Democrats jumpy. In that instance, those Democrats had to choose to vote with the Republicans and the firearms proposal or against the philosophies of their districts and side with leadership.

Either way, Republicans had Democrats in a stranglehold.

If those gun-friendly Democrats voted with the Republicans, the MTR blew up the Washington, DC voting rights bill. If Republicans were successful in goading those same Democrats into voting with the leadership, watch out come election time. By crafting a controversial motion to recommit, Republicans had generated a tally where they could document where certain Democrats from vulnerable districts might vote against the right to bear arms. Republicans would then prep election ads that would portray those Democrats as opposing the Second Amendment. They would then display fine print at the bottom of the screen that showed the vote where they voted against guns.

Mindful that their lawmakers could face exposure to these ads, the Democratic leadership yanked the District of Columbia bill off the House floor.

Fast forward to present day.

Last week, the House debated the so-called “cash for caulkers” measure. The legislation would help people weatherize their homes and install energy efficient windows. The bill passed. However, Republicans concocted a crafty motion to recommit on that measure, too.

The GOP’s MTR essentially gutted the $6.6 billion legislation. In other words, the House essentially passed a skeleton of the original bill. Republicans also added a litany of restrictions that banned child molesters from doing the contracting work.

Democrats were leery that they could be framed as voting for sex offenders to receive federal aid. So they sided with Republicans on the motion to recommit. The House adopted the MTR 346-68. The House later approved the modified bill 246-161.

Nearly the same thing unfolded Thursday.

The House debated the COMPETES Act, an $80 billion technology bill that supporters argued would create jobs and invest in science research and development.

“I urge all our colleagues to make a very strong bipartisan vote for jobs, for science, and to keep America number one by voting for the COMPETES Act,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during her speech in favor of the package.

But it never got to a final vote. Yet alone a bipartisan one.

Last fall, the National Science Foundation (NSF) discovered an epidemic of pornography viewing on government computers. NSF scored $6 billion from the federal government in 2008. More recently, the Inspector General at the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) investigated pornography-viewing habits at that agency. The IG determined that no one who was caught viewing porn was fired. Several resigned or were suspended. Others were issued reprimands.

So with the COMPETES Act in the till, the GOP again hatched an artful motion to recommit.

This MTR would require the government to can all employees disciplined for using government computers to view pornography. FOX obtained an internal GOP memo that explained to Republicans how they should vote on this particular MTR.

“If you believe that a few days suspension or a reprimand for federal employees who use government computers to look at pornography is sufficient, vote no on the motion,” the memo said. “If you believe that using taxpayer-purchased computers to view or distribute pornography ought to be a fire-able offense, then vote YES on this Motion to Recommit.”

The GOP maneuver outraged House Science Committee Chairman Bart Gordon (D-TN).

“Every­body raise your hand that’s for pornog­ra­phy,” implored Gordon on the House floor. “Come on, raise your hand. Nobody? Nobody is for pornog­ra­phy? Well, I’m shocked. So I guess we need this lit­tle bitty pro­vi­sion that means noth­ing. That’s going to gut the entire bill. This is an embar­rass­ment, and if you vote for this, you should be embarrassed.”

Apparently Gordon’s shaming wasn’t enough to persuade his colleagues to vote against the MTR. Democrats were already spooked. The House voted 292-126 in favor of the GOP motion. One-hundred-twenty-one Democrats bucked Gordon’s plea. Only one Republican, Rep. Vern Ehlers (R-MI), sided with Gordon. And Ehlers is retiring.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) said Republicans “proved that they only care about cynical ploys to take back power in November for the special interests.”

Realizing the GOP had the upper hand, House Democrats pulled the COMPETES Act off the floor until at least next week. It never saw a final vote.

And you can bet Republicans will begin to tee up ads this fall targeting the 125 Democrats who voted against the MTR.

Spin the apocalyptic music and cue the announcer.

“Can you believe he even voted against firing government workers who view pornography at work?” he’ll claim, in his scariest voice yet.

Then go grab your spectacles. Or better yet, a magnifying glass.

“Roll Call Vote 270 - May 13, 2010, H.R. 5116” will flash across the bottom of the screen.

It’s all there. If you can read the fine print.