Financial bail-out: Of laws and sausages
Chancellor Otto von Bismarck famously said, “Laws are like sausages. It is better not to see them being made.” As Americans watched Congress deal with the financial bail-out legislation, the words of Bismarck still ring true. So, let’s look at the linked sausages of: Vote Trading, Vote Pairing and Passes.
Vote Trading is easy to understand. Let’s say that Rep. Beauregard Claghorn (D) favors House Resolution (HR) 1234. He approaches another legislator who favors HR 4321. Rep. Claghorn says, “If you will vote for HR 1234, I will vote for HR 4321.” This happens all the time on Capitol Hill.
Vote Pairing is a little more complex. According to the Library of Congress: “‘Pairs’ are informal voluntary agreements between House Members, not specifically authorized or recognized by House rules. They are agreements which Members employ to nullify the effect of absences on recorded votes. If a Member expects to be absent for a vote, he may ‘pair off’ with another Member who would vote on the other side of the question, but who agrees not to vote. Because pairs are informal and unofficial arrangements, they are not counted in vote totals, but they are published in the Congressional Record. If a vote is one that requires a two-thirds majority (e.g., overriding a presidential veto), then a pair consists of two members favoring the action who are absent and one opposed to it, who withholds his/her vote.”
So far, this under-the-table stuff seems fairly innocuous. But it can have a duplicitous side. Let’s say that Rep. Claghorn’s party has a majority of 235 to 199, which just happens to be the case in the U.S. House today. (One seat is vacant.) To pass a bill, 218 “yes” votes are needed. Ergo: If Speaker Nancy Pelosi wants a bill passed, she can order the Majority Whip to round up 218 votes out of her 235.
When the Speaker brings a bill to the floor, it is expected that she already has the votes lined up to pass the bill. Speaker Pelosi said she agreed with the initial version of the financial bail-out bill (HR 3997) in principle. But instead of ordering her Whip to round up 218 votes, she gave “Passes” to 16 freshman Democrats who feared a “yes” vote might cost them their House seats on November 4th. Five of her own committee chairpersons voted against HR 3997.
Rep. Barney Frank (D) (whose refusal to rein in Fanny Mae and Freddy Mac caused this crisis) was the floor manager assigned to get HR 3997 passed. But 12 members of the Finance Committee he heads voted against HR 3997. This failure to round up 218 votes out of her 235 would lead a reasonable person to conclude that Speaker Pelosi was conducting a charade designed to blame HR 3997’s failure on House Republicans and, by implication, on Senator John McCain.
Chancellor Bismarck said something else that applies here: “When a man says he approves of something in principle, it means he hasn’t the slightest intention of putting it into practice.”
Finally, here’s more about the Pass. Sometimes, one side has more than enough votes to approve a particular measure. Let’s say that Rep. Claghorn’s constituents are against that particular measure. Claghorn goes to his party’s Whip and asks for a Pass. Because his party has plenty of votes already, Claghorn’s vote is not needed. Claghorn is given a Pass to vote against his own party.
But there are no free Passes. The Whip will make note of the Pass. Now, Rep. Claghorn owes the Whip a favor which at some future time may be used to induce Rep. Claghorn to vote for a measure which he and his constituents oppose on principle.
In a representative democracy, one would hope that all members of Congress would put principle over party. Folks who believe that should go on E-bay and look for that bridge linking Manhattan to Brooklyn.
William Hamilton, a syndicated columnist and a featured commentator for USA Today, studied at Harvard’s JFK School of Government. Dr. Hamilton is a former assistant professor of political science and history at Nebraska Wesleyan University.
©2008. William Hamilton.