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When push comes to stove, silly season is just getting warmed up

Gas-stove bill proves there is often no fire amid rhetorical smoke

A pot sits on a gas-burning stove, an appliance the House is seeking to protect.
A pot sits on a gas-burning stove, an appliance the House is seeking to protect. (Michael Bocchieri/Getty Images)

Two seismic events in Washington last week are likely to reverberate through American politics for decades.

Donald Trump became the first former president to be indicted on federal charges. At the crux of the Espionage Act case against Trump is the defrocked president’s apparent belief that vital national security documents are best safeguarded in a bathroom with a glittering chandelier and a crystal wall sconce.

More importantly for the future of American freedom, House Republicans embarked on a crusade to prevent jackbooted government vegan environmental zealots from seizing every gas stove in the nation at dinnertime.

The gas stove bill was put on the backburner after an unrelated protest by the hard-right members of the Freedom Caucus caused a temporary flameout on the House floor.

But lingering GOP discord over the debt ceiling bill did not douse the flames of freedom for long. These divisions are already being papered over so House Republicans could say to each other with pride, “Now, you’re cooking with gas.”

The gas stove bill is proof that on Capitol Hill where there is rhetorical smoke, there is often no fire.

In a classic example of a phantom menace akin to the war on Christmas, Republicans have elevated a stray comment by a Democratic member of the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) into a Joe Biden plot to force socialism into every American kitchen.

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said unequivocally, “The president does not support banning gas stoves.” Rich Trumka Jr., the CPSC commissioner who triggered the right-wing’s meme machine, insisted that he was only musing about possible safety regulations on new — rather than existing — gas stoves.

Against this factual backdrop, House Republicans are determined to use valuable floor time to pass legislation to prevent the federal government from doing what it has no intention of doing in the first place.

The GOP’s stovetop crusade is what has become known on Capitol Hill as a “message bill.” Loosely defined, it is legislation that has no chance of becoming law but is put forward mischievously to create a vote that can be later used in campaign commercials.

A quick database search suggests that the concept of message bills only came into vogue in the early years of this century. An early citation is a 2008 press release from the American Civil Liberties Union decrying a “message bill” in Congress that would take $2.1 million in earmarks from Berkeley, Calif., to punish the local city council for voting to repudiate the Iraq War.

Beyond their inherent silliness, message bills simply don’t work in the current hyper-partisan political environment.

A statistic to remember is that only 11 percent of the voters in 2020 split their tickets by voting for one party for president and another party for Congress. Moreover, there are currently at most just 75 possibly competitive House districts in 2024.

It strains credulity to believe that a single voter in any swing congressional district would be influenced by the GOP’s white-hot zeal on behalf of every American’s God-given right to cook stovetop stuffing with gas heat.

Never will an actual up-for-grabs voter say, “I was going to support the Democrats because Trump is a crook, and the congressional Republicans are his enablers. But then I thought about my gas stove — and I realized what’s truly on the griddle in 2024.”

This bumper-sticker legislation doesn’t even inoculate House Republicans from a far-right primary challenge. No disgruntled conservative primary voter is ever going to calculate, “The incumbent is a moderate squish who can’t be trusted to stand up to the Democrats. But I’m backing him anyway because he voted the right way on gas stoves.”

In an era of ideologically based party-line voting in the House, neither Republicans nor Democrats need to work overtime to concoct fake issues.

The Republicans who are pushing this kind of silly-season legislation don’t understand that they can make a campaign case that any House Democrat is a free-spending liberal based solely on his or her voting record on substantive matters.

Similarly, Democrats would have no factual problem portraying virtually any House Republican as a fervent foe of abortion who wanted to eviscerate domestic spending by voting for Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s slash-and-burn budget proposal.

These political truths are evident before either side resorts to the usual trickery in campaign ads of taking existing votes out of context.

In short, you don’t have to light a stove on fire to create a voice-of-doom 30-second spot suggesting that any congressional incumbent is an extremist who can’t be trusted to do the right thing in Congress.

But even compared to most message votes in Congress, the current Republican crusade is in a hot-stove league of its own. Why not also have a companion message vote declaring that an appliance has a life of its own as soon as it is 40 percent assembled?

At this point in a column, it is easy to reflexively type that the Republicans under Kevin McCarthy are turning the House into a laughingstock. But, in truth, that point was obvious during the speaker vote when Marjorie Taylor Greene emerged as a power player in this Congress.

To update Harry Truman’s adage: If you can’t stand the heat, then don’t politicize gas stoves.

Walter Shapiro, who has covered every presidential campaign since 1980, is a staff writer for the New Republic and a lecturer in political science at Yale.

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