- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Football fans feasted this past week on the beginning of the NFL playoffs and the BCS college championship game. And while lawmaking is more than a sport, there is a pigskin parable that Democrats in Congress would do well to understand.

For those Americans who watch politics like sports junkies and agree with Democratic policies, the substance and tactics of Democrats’ 100-hour agenda in the House must be exhilarating. These voters spent years frustrated by the Republican majority in Congress. And now they are witnessing their team quickly muscle through a bunch of bills over the objections of Republican lawmakers neutered by institutional procedures — both a satisfying and long-awaited experience. As for Republicans, watching their team consistently crushed by a disciplined House Democratic juggernaut has left them, in the words of one former GOP leader, “somewhere between rage and despair.”

But most Americans, particularly swing voters, are neither as emotionally tied nor as intellectually attuned to the specific nuances of House legislative politics. These citizens drift in and out of attentiveness when it comes to Washington and draw broad conclusions about the action and behavior of elected officials and institutions like Congress. They evaluate only after painting a broader mosaic in their minds, not taking a narrow snapshot.

Indeed, it’s likely most voters won’t know the specifics of legislation passed in Democrats’ first 100-hour agenda. It’s more possible they will draw broad conclusions rather than remember specific details. And it’s probable the nugget most Americans will take away is that Democrats promised an open, bipartisan process during the campaign and then shut Republicans out, allowing very few opportunities for minority participation. Saying one thing and then doing another usually sticks in people’s minds more than specific details of legislation.

When Republicans controlled the majority in the House they often failed to grasp this nuance of legislative communication. The GOP circled the wagons of partisan unity and procedural power and passed many bills on nearly straight party-line votes. Many viewed passage of legislation in one house as a triumph and believed voters would reward these actions. But in the minds of most citizens, legislative activity is not the same as lawmaking accomplishment. It’s like taking an early lead in the game — most fans don’t remember the score at half time.

Legislation tied in partisan knots in the House is hard to unravel in the Senate. Over the past few years, most Democrats in the upper body had very little incentive to play midwife to a bill conceived in partisanship in the lower chamber. Hindsight is always 20-20, but some now recognize this tactical nuance. “We should have recalibrated some of our legislation to attract more Democratic support in the House,” one leadership aide told me recently. “Every time we sent the Senate a bill passed along straight party lines in the House, it pretty much guaranteed the legislation was doomed.”

Unlike in the House, early signals indicate Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell intend to follow the mantra of bipartisanship in word and deed. The contrasts in messages between the House and the Senate in this first week of the 110th Congress could not be more stark. The Senate, as its first act, met privately to discuss how to avoid partisan food fights; the House just began to throw Sloppy Joes as Democrats reneged on their campaign promises to include the minority in the legislative process. The commitments uttered by the Senate leaders only reinforce the notion that bills concocted in the locker room of House partisanship won’t reach the goal line in the upper body.

Most Americans don’t pay a lot of attention to the daily rhythms of the congressional marching band. They tap their toes to beats other than the specifics of laws and legislative procedures. They want to see Congress work, get along and produce accomplishments.

As the Dallas Cowboys discovered on Saturday, leading at halftime doesn’t mean you win the game. House Democrats may need to learn a similar lesson. Voters won’t remember how many bills they ram through the House, just how many get across the goal line and signed at the president’s desk.

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