An astounding exercise in political suicide


People were saying last week that they'd simply inform the Internal Revenue Service that they "deemed" their taxes paid, thus disposing of the matter without actually sending money.

This was ridicule, you see, for the idea that House Democrats might use a procedural device called "deem and pass" to get nothing less than health care reform enacted without forcing members actually to vote on health care reform.

As with most matters falling into the great chasm between Washington and the hinterlands, this all sounded much worse than it actually was.

But, in politics, how something sounds is usually more important than how it is, especially when the Republicans, who have such a gift in this arena, manage to affix their tacky brand.

Since this procedure was first suggested by Rep. Louise Slaughter, liberal from New York and chairman of House Rules, the Republicans took to calling it the "Slaughter House Rules." That combined a Kurt Vonnegut book called the "Slaughterhouse Five" with a movie about abortion called the "Cider House Rules" and, for good measure, invoked the ever-unpleasant imagery of slaughtering animals to make, say, sausage.

Republicans did not call the maneuver the "Slaughter House Rules" when they used it time and again when they were in the majority.

So what? This is now. This is health care.

This is an electorate with Attention Deficit Disorder.

This is when the House Democratic leadership has never seemed more out of touch with the prevailing -- no, let's make that raging -- public mood.

To enact something widely opposed or misunderstood by a procedure that can be called inside political gimmickry, and to do so at the very moment when the politics as usual of Washington insiders is loathed perhaps as never before -- well, such an act of short-term political suicide I have never before witnessed.

I'm not talking about merit. I'm not talking about what can be substantively defended.

I'm talking about how things superficially appear. Thus I'm talking about the very essence of modern American politics.

Nancy Pelosi needs to go to, oh, I don't know ... Peoria. Soon.

This is too complex to fit easily into the remaining space, much less permeate the pervasive American public consciousness. But I'll take a shot.

The only practical way to get health care passed is for House Democrats to go along with a Senate bill they don't much like, and do so only with the promise by the Senate to amend a few things out later by using budget reconciliation requiring only a majority vote.

Pelosi has struggled to find the 216 votes. Her liberals don't like the more moderate aspects of the Senate bill. Some of her Blue Dogs don't like the more permissive language on abortion.

So here's what Slaughter suggested: The House could package the matter as a vote on a rule by which the Senate bill would be accepted, but only with certain restricted amendments, and the language of the rule to be voted on would invoke this "deem as passed" language by which passage of the rule on how to proceed on amendments would automatically pass the bill itself.

This would allow liberals to say they voted for this Senate bill only indirectly and only by insisting on amendments. It would allow moderate Democrats to say -- without much of a leg to stand on, I must say -- that they actually only voted for a rule on amendments, not the health care bill itself.

So not only would Democrats invite loathing for procedural trickery, but their most politically vulnerable members -- Blue Dogs from Republican-inclined districts -- would be guilty both of voting for health care reform and lying in a cowardly way about what they effectively voted for.

Timing being everything, this is only the worst politics I've ever seen.

John Brummett is an award-winning columnist for the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock and author of "High Wire," a book about Bill Clinton's first year as president. His e-mail address is jbrummett@ arkansasnews.com.

 

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