- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 15, 2003

“Off year” is a popular colloquialism in the congressional lexicon, but its meaninghas started to crumble. Historically, odd-numbered years were times when Congress built consensus — without the distraction of imminent elections — and passed legislation in a less politically charged environment. Yet, with campaigns starting earlier each cycle, electoral politics seep into lawmaking sooner every year. Washington’s “permanent campaign” means these old distinctions in the congressional calendar have collapsed, not unlike the Berlin Wall, smothering legislation in the rubble.

Expertsagree there is a window before every election when thecongressional process slows to a crawl and legislating becomes difficult. Yet, now this election season — and the period of political obstinacy — grows every year. A decade ago, Congress- watchers thought the lawmaking environment became inordinatelypoliticized around the summer before an election. More recently, experts urged passage of all essential legislation before the election year began. Now, at the end of this “off year,” congressional insiders already feel the choking grip of next year’s elections.

Look no further for evidence of a politicized “off year” than the current House schedule. When lawmakers returned to Washington after the August recess, House GOP leaders faced a variety of politically motivated procedural tactics aimed at delaying and obstructing floor proceedings. As a result, they adopted an abbreviated schedule for the remainder of this year, bringing members back for votes on Tuesday night and Wednesday, and then sending them back to their districts. With the bulk of the major legislative agenda finished for the year, GOP leaders concluded a truncated schedule was prudent and wise. “We basically completed our work on the floor and are waiting for the Senate to act,” one House GOP leadership aide said. “Why give the Democrats a bunch of opportunities to grandstand and try to make political points?”

The Senate is not immune from earlier electioneering, either. Filibusters are one-way partisanship creeps into that body, when a minority of senators (or just one) denies the majority the unanimous consent required under the rules to consider legislation. Partisanship has grown over the past decade and so, predictably, has the increased use of filibusters. As an example of politics infecting the legislative process in the “off years,” the Senate now uses filibusters earlier in the process as well. Over the past 10 years, while the use of filibusters has increased dramatically overall, the rate of growth of this procedural weapon has been faster in the first session of each Congress, compared to the second session. Examining the growth of cloture petitions (the way the Senate tries to end filibusters) over the past two decades tells the story. There were 70 such petitions filed in the first session of Congresses between 1983-1993 and 132 between 1993-2002 — an increase of 89 percent. Second session cloture growth was slower at only 74 percent. Senators now use the political weapon of the filibuster the way Nomar Garciaparra swings a bat: early in the count and often.

There’s also a host of anecdotal evidence supporting earlier politization of the process. On a host of measures currently pending in Congress, including the remaining Appropriations bill, bankruptcy reform and energy policy, there are reports that the minority party does “not want to give the Republicans a victory,” according to a Democratic lobbyist. “They [Republicans] control everything now. Why should we make it easy for them?” he said.

Early politics is also a reason that Congress has not reauthorized the Higher Education Act this year, leaving its fate to election-year vagaries, according to a Republican lawmaker. He noted that the White House won a major political victory after the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act. “Why would the Democrats want to give the president another victory on education?” he asked.

The permanent campaign is beginning to infect the legislative process in non-election years. For those waiting for the political equivalent of “Gentlemen, start your electoral engines,” the 2004 race has already entered the first turn. Buckle your seat belts.

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