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Enough with ‘gotcha votes’ in Congress — they just don’t work

Presidential elections have a way of drowning out everything else

Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., concludes a news conference on Capitol Hill on Nov. 2. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., concludes a news conference on Capitol Hill on Nov. 2. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Mike Johnson last week, in one of his first substantive moves as House speaker, paired $14.3 billion in aid to Israel with what would have been a similar-sized funding cut for the Internal Revenue Service.

Johnson and his leadership team must have thought they were fiendishly clever. Their assumption was that the legislation would force House Democrats to make a difficult choice — either be tarred as “anti-Israel” in the 2024 election or accede to the GOP’s agenda for a toothless IRS.

The gambit worked as far as inducing 12 skittish Democrats to vote for the Republican-crafted bill. But, like so much partisan gamesmanship on Capitol Hill, it will have about as much effect on next year’s elections as an astrology chart for Nov. 5, 2024, when voters will head to the polls.

On substantive grounds, the $14.3 billion GOP bill was Keystone Kops legislation.

Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., said last week the Senate would not even consider it because of both the proposed IRS cuts and its lack of funding for Ukraine’s war with Russia. And the Congressional Budget Office found that trimming the IRS budget, and thus undermining tax compliance, would add $26.8 billion to the federal deficit.

Continuing the comic opera, Johnson appeared on “Fox News Sunday” to claim with a straight face that the House GOP is “trying to be good stewards of the taxpayer’s resources.” He also bragged, “We are trying to change how Washington works.”

In truth, Johnson is reflecting how Washington has worked since the rise of Newt Gingrich, himself the chamber’s onetime speaker, in the late 1980s. Too often on Capitol Hill, the goal is not legislating but creating so-called “gotcha moments” designed to ensnare the other party.

Yet, for all the Machiavellian plotting and overheated rhetoric surrounding these message votes, it strains credulity to believe that they will work as a political tactic in a presidential election year.

Beyond redistricting, the race for the White House — especially if it is a Joe Biden-Donald Trump rematch — will dominate everything. Only in ludicrous moments of self-deception should any House incumbent believe that voters will go to the polls primarily thinking about them. (Republican firebrand Rep. Lauren Boebert in Colorado may be the rare exception).

It all brings to mind a famous political story from the 1930s. Hymie Shorenstein was a political kingmaker in New York. A candidate for a municipal judgeship complained to Shorenstein that his name was missing from the Democratic campaign posters promoting Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Shorenstein responded with an analogy to the Staten Island Ferry: “When that big ferry from Staten Island sails into the ferry slip … it drags in all the crap from the harbor behind it.” Shorenstein then added for emphasis, “FDR is our Staten Island Ferry.”

Maybe House candidates in 2024 are more important than debris from the harbor. But they are certainly not piloting the ferry or even on the top deck.

Turning back to Israel, there is no way of knowing whether the Middle East will be in flames a year from now or whether the region will be reduced to a back-burner concern like almost all foreign policy issues.

Also, if Trump is the GOP nominee, his words about Israel and its enemies will matter far more to voters than Republican message votes in the House.

There is no guarantee that Trump, espousing his “America first” isolationism, won’t contradict House Republicans on support for Israel. Already, Trump went out of his way last month to praise Hezbollah, the Iran-backed terrorist group attacking Israel from Lebanon. “You know,” the former president said, “Hezbollah is very smart.”

In case you haven’t noticed, truth is in short supply when it comes to campaign rhetoric. Ever since Trump began running for president in 2015 by attacking supposed “rapists” crossing the border from Mexico, his motor-mouthed invective has left fact-checkers screaming in frustration.

In 1979, novelist Mary McCarthy railed against the dishonesty of fellow writer Lillian Hellman. Appearing on television, McCarthy declared, “Every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.'” You can just imagine what McCarthy might have said about Trump.

In this Orwellian world of ever-malleable truth, Trump aide Kellyanne Fitzpatrick’s (formerly Kellyanne Conway) 2017 talk of “alternative facts” reflects the tenor of political discourse.

If the Republicans want to charge that a House Democratic incumbent is “anti-Israel,” they don’t need a specific roll call vote. All that is required is to yank a few words out of context — and you have grist for an attack ad.

That, of course, assumes that the negative spot in a House race would be noticed amid the cacophony of political ads in a presidential election cycle.

Such presidential swing states as Arizona, Michigan, Nevada, North Carolina and Pennsylvania are also home to up-for-grabs House seats. And even in Democrat-dominated California, contested House races are likely to be upstaged by a free-spending Senate race.

With just 10 days remaining until the government runs out of money, Johnson and the House GOP leadership have to decide how they want to play a continuing resolution. Will they opt for a clean bill that would delay a fiscal reckoning until January, or will they try to score political points by tacking on provisions on immigration, for instance, that will never pass muster with the Senate or White House?

The odds are high that Johnson and the Republicans will be unable to resist the allure of more political mischief.

But once again, the GOP doesn’t need more House votes to claim in ads with grainy photos and a voice-of-doom narration that the Democrats supposedly favor “open borders.” The hyperbolic claim is already a standard part of Republican rhetoric.

If Johnson sincerely wants to “change how Washington works,” here’s a simple suggestion: He should actually legislate instead of aggressively promoting time-wasting and ineffective message votes.

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