Congress looked ugly on bailout bill, but system worked

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 4, 2008 

WASHNGTON _ Everything America hates about Congress was on vivid display these last few weeks as members struggled to pass the $700 billion financial rescue plan.

Yet experts argue that in the end the system worked, as members acted rapidly to try to ease what may be the most serious economic crisis since the Great Depression.

“Democracy is messy,” explained Carl Pinkele, professor of politics and government at Ohio Wesleyan University.

But has it become too messy? How did a three-page Bush administration request balloon into a 450-page goodie bag brimming with tax breaks for NASCAR racetracks and children’s wooden arrow makers, among others? Why did 58 House members who voted against the bill Monday vote yes Friday, after those sweeteners were added?

Congress clearly has an image problem, one that drove its already tiny approval rating down to 15 percent in a CBS News poll taken Sept. 27-30, in the midst of the bailout battle.

Will the bailout bill chaos prod the system to function more smoothly?

Probably not, said Jack Pitney, professor of American politics at Claremont McKenna College in California.

“This is how Congress usually works, and whenever people have the opportunity to watch it, they think less of the institution,” he said.

Crafting legislation, especially a month before an election, is a delicate give-and-take process, one that requires doing what is necessary to win a House majority and 60 Senate votes, the number needed to stop a filibuster.

“You just have to keep giving things to people to get enough votes,” explained Pinkele.

Still, the question lingers among constituents: Was this process uglier and seamier than usual?

Angry partisans

Yes, in one sense, because Congress in recent years has become more of a cauldron of partisan ire, where each side is highly suspicious of the other.

Veteran consensus-builders like the two banking committee chairmen, Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., and Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., and friendly Republicans, including Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, were able to work smoothly behind closed doors.

But once their carefully crafted plans were offered to the rank and file Sunday, the partisan wrath surfaced. Republicans have long disliked House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, saying she often shuts them out of decision-making, and Democrats _ many still stung by Bill Clinton’s 1998 impeachment and the Bush White House’s misleading claims about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq _ tend to view Republicans as ideologues unwilling to compromise.

Pelosi knew weeks ago that she needed 100 GOP votes for the bailout to pass. Too many urban and progressive Democrats could not back the bill; too many were concerned Wall Street fat cats were being saved while their constituents were being tossed out of their homes.

But when the partisan Pelosi emerged anew Monday, just before the House bailout vote, and blasted the "right-wing ideology of anything goes, no supervision, no discipline, no regulation,” many GOP lawmakers were reminded of the speaker they despised.

Pelosi’s speech “was hardly statesmanlike,” said James Hoefler, coordinator of the Dickinson College Policy Studies Program in Carlisle, Pa. The stunning House rejection of the plan left both sides accusing the other of playing politics.

Republicans blamed Pelosi for the defeat; as House GOP leader John Boehner charged her words “caused a number of members we thought we could get to go south.”

Hoefler’s analysis: “It was all pretty juvenile.”

Divided Republicans

Adding to the ugliness was a Republican schism that’s been building for years.

House Republicans have endured an uneasy alliance between practical members and the more ideologically inclined for some time. The choice of Boehner in 2006 to lead the GOP was a victory for the practical side, but he presides over a fractured alliance.

So when a Boehner lieutenant with strong ties to the conservatives, Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., unveiled his plan last week (Sept. 25-26) to use insurance rather than government aid to help struggling firms, he instantly found strong support among free marketers.

Boehner quickly fell into line, and so, officially, did the Republican Party. Presidential candidate John McCain would try to explain the plan at the White House summit meeting, but apparently was nearly incoherent, according to two Democrats present.

Most of the free marketers, as well as fiscal conservatives appalled at the potential deficit growth, generally would not be consoled, even at the end.

“This is an abuse by lawmakers and a waste of American tax dollars,” Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, said Friday.

But with the sweeteners, notably tax breaks likely to add $110 billion to the a deficit almost certain to set a new record next year, members can go home and show they did something for taxpayers.

Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas, switched to yes Friday.

“I do not believe that such massive government action is the best answer to the current problems on Wall Street,” he said.

But, he added, changes “unrelated to the overall plan” helped make the bill “easier to vote for,” notably the help for constituents who take sales tax deductions on income tax, are subject to the alternative minimum tax and need disaster relief because of hurricane damage.

Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, also said he was “uncomfortable with the degree of government intrusion,” but he voted yes partly because of the improved Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. protection on consumer bank deposits.

“A former minister in home church used to say that. ‘Sometimes you have to put aside your principles and do what’s right,'" Thornberry said. “I believe at this extraordinary time passing this flawed bill is the right thing to do.”

His dilemma was echoed throughout the Capitol Friday.

“Everyone knew something had to be done, but they didn’t want to be hit if everything blew up,” said Dennis Goldford, professor of politics at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. “They all knew how terribly unpopular this was.”

Messiness is nothing new on Capitol Hill. In November 2003, House Republican leaders stretched a scheduled 15-minute vote that began at 3:01 a.m. until 5:53 a.m. as they tried, and ultimately won, approval of a Medicare prescription drug bill. After the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, some 88 congressional committees claimed jurisdiction over homeland security.

So enacting a historic bailout bill in a matter of weeks is almost a demonstration that an unruly system can be tamed. The drama probably won’t boost Congress’ approval numbers, but that’s democracy, Capitol Hill-style.

“The system is designed so you do what you can to get to the middle,” said Pinkele. “It’s not the pure civics model of government. But that model has never really been the way things work.”

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