Setting the Record Straight

July 9, 2008

Tongue-Tripping Candidates II

What Did That Bill Say? 

          And that brings us to authorship of legislation. At all levels of legislative candidacy–federal, state and municipal level–claims are made of “my bill” or “his bill.”
         The public’s ignorance of what this claim is all about was no more obvious than during the 2004 presidential election when the Democrats’ presidential candidate, John Kerry, said in a statement that would forever damn his chances because the public did not understand the process, that he voted for a piece of legislation to add funds to the war effort in Afghanistan and Iraq “before I voted against it.“
         That statement became the equal to the “swift-boat” campaign that added to the type of electoral ammunition Obama is about to face and that eventually doomed Kerry and the nation to another four years of George W. Bush.
         As inartful as Kerry’s statement may have been, he was simply being accurate.
         At all electoral levels, incumbents and those who run against them are going to be citing legislation, bills, proposals, measures, and all the other nouns used to describe them, that they authored, sponsored, co-sponsored, voted for, backed, whatever.
         There is safe haven in most of those words. The bill may have turned out to be junk, but if you think the result will win you votes, you can say you supported it. If you think it will lose you votes, you can say you were against it. How? Because no, or at least precious few, pieces of legislation make it through the mill without being altered.
         For example, members of Congress regularly put out press releases about bills they “co-sponsored.” Most of these are nice-sounding bills with even greater-sounding titles, such as Rep. A’s bill: “The Apple Pie and Motherhood Act of 2008,” but which might contain a hidden Jesse Helms provision. Rep. B either is an ideological ally of Rep. A, or more likely, Rep. B wants support for his “Motherhood and Apple Pie Act of Infinity and Beyond,” so he signs on as a co-sponsor of Rep. A’s bill with the expectation Rep. B will sign onto his.
         The bill is introduced with whatever number of clueless cosponsors and is referred to a committee. The committee refers it to a subcommittee. Depending on the chairmanship of the full committee, the bill receives attention or it does not.
         If the bill is among the small minority that gets any attention at all, it would receive a hearing at the subcommittee level and that panel would work its will on the piece of legislation, perhaps even, for the sake of this example, changing the title to the “Mother Pie and Apple Hood Act of Our Grandchildren.” The original author did not have that in mind, so, if he is a member of the committee, or even the subcommittee, he naturally votes against the bill. If he is not on the panel to which the legislation was referred, chances are it would not have been brought up in the first place, at least not in his name.
         That, or something more similar than you would like to know, is what was behind a presidency-losing Kerry statement: “actually, I did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it.”
         The simple-minded explanation of the tabloid-cable types and thus the thinking of more than half of the American electorate: “flip-flop.” Result: four more years of George W. Bush, four more years of Iraq, four and more thousand Americans dead, four more years of……………….”
         Who can say what the outcome of that election might have been if Kerry had explained, and the electorate understood, “I strongly supported that proposal early in the process, but when it got chopped up and distorted beyond all recognition, I could not support it any more.” Obama already is discovering the need for artful language with his shift that was is not a shift on the Iraq war issue.
         And finally, a word on another legislative item bandied about during campaigns. The outs always accuse the ins of voting for a bill they never read. You should hope your incumbent is not wasting time reading, or trying to read, bills.
         Bills, the proposals that become laws if they garner enough support, are written by lawyers according to a carefully designed legal procedure. Most proposals are attempts to change or add to existing law, so the bills actually refer to specific clauses, lines, paragraphs or sections of the U.S. Code or some other law. Reading a bill usually requires sitting down with the dozens of volumes of the U.S. Code at hand as a cross-check.
         What incumbents actually should read are the explanations prepared by able staff or their party leaders who lay out in fine detail what the bill is all about and what it would or would not do according to the preferred interpretation.
         This lesson was intended to be a primer on how voters should follow what is said in political campaigns, but with the ubiquitous presence of tabloid cable screamers, YouTube and the rest of the Internet, candidates themselves might want to avail themselves of a similar primer and alter their tendency to speak in shorthand.  
         Even a fairy dreamed up by Shakespeare half a millennium ago could say, “Lord, what fools these mortals be.”

(from www.straightrecord.com)

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