Congress Loves 'Gotcha' Votes

This is a change election.

This is a change election. Everyone says so, right? Well, not in Congress, where Democrats are planning another round of votes for no other purpose than to embarrass the other side.

Democrats are dreaming up several partisan votes aimed solely at contrasting Democratic candidates and their Republican counterparts and at making trouble for John McCain for the fall. Having a productive and honorable legislative session -- as if the founding fathers ever envisioned such a thing -- is out of the question.

What's more likely is this ....

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Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi have nearly ultimate power to decide what the Senate and House debate and vote on in the remaining few months of the congressional session in advance of the election. (August and early September Congress will be in recess).

With gridlock the norm and legislation moving through Congress with the speed of Dutch Elm Disease, it's a perfect time for leaders to set up recorded votes on issues to help Democrats in political campaigns, and just as the GOP is bracing for possibly large losses in November. Some of these symbolic votes will ripple into the presidential race as well.

A sense of the Senate vote to endorse Barack Obama's pledge to spend $150 billion over 10 years to invest in green technology, for instance. That's a price tag McCain and other Republicans will flinch at.

Another amendment calling once again for a short timetable to begin an initial withdrawal from Iraq. Doesn't matter that it won't pass, put everyone on the record again for tomorrow's news cycle. Democratic leaders will wink, knowing the public-at-large approves in poll after poll.

An amendment to index the minimum wage to inflation. McCain and Republicans would vote against it, perhaps without giving speeches in protest.

Or a proposal in the House to expand the plant-closing notification law to cover more businesses. Republicans would vote no, even though it would be stopped in its tracks in the Senate, where the GOP has more procedural tools at its disposal.

Or a nonbinding amendment calling for a middle class tax cut to be paid for by ending tax cuts for the wealthy. Republicans won't want to vote against middle class tax cuts, but they don't want to end cuts for the wealthy.

Another go round on generous veterans education benefits? Hmmm.

Or a sense of Congress resolution supporting a guest worker immigration program, written carefully to counter McCain's own current view of a border fence and border controls first. Republicans would sink it; McCain would have to oppose it.

You get the picture.

I wonder if it may be for naught, though, at least on the presidential level. House and Senate incumbents would vote, protecting and treasuring their voting attendance records. But McCain and Obama might end up skipping most votes, as they've done all year, saying their campaign travels must take precedence. Obama might choose to weigh in on a few such meaningless votes though, if nothing else to point out McCain's absence on one more "critical" issue, nevermind it is the product of a partisan playbook.

And so it goes - or not - in Washington.

Richard Sammon
Senior Associate Editor, The Kiplinger Letter