Frame Game


Now that Democrats have wrested control of the U.S. Senate, the parties are quarreling again over which of them has a mandate for its agenda. Liberals say President Bush has no mandate because he lost the popular vote and because the Supreme Court stopped the recount in Florida. Conservatives say Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., has no mandate because he captured the Senate only by eliciting the defection of a senator who had been re-elected last fall as a Republican. Both sides imagine that the worst crime against democracy is to govern on the false pretense of having won a mandate. But as they spin, plot, and position themselves for 2002, the parties are spreading a more insidious cancer: Legislative strategy, which was supposed to give voters what they asked for in the last election, is being used instead to engineer victory in the next one.

Politicians love the power that comes with majority status, but they hate the responsibility. From this standpoint, the Senate power shift offers each party an opportunity. Democrats, blessed with power, plan to use their committee chairmanships and the majority leader’s control of the schedule to convene hearings and bring up issues that will put Republicans in politically awkward positions. Republicans, freed from responsibility, plan to ambush the new regime, guerrilla-style, with amendments that will put Democrats in politically awkward positions. Neither party expects—or even intends to try—to earn enough bipartisan support to pass most of its agenda. Instead, hearings, bills, schedules, amendments, and votes will be orchestrated to create wedge issues for the next election. This isn’t legislating. It’s wedgislating.

The Democrats’ wedge-crafting strategy was outlined last week in the New York Times by former Clinton strategists James Carville and Paul Begala:

Democrats ought to continue to raise alternative tax cuts: refundable credits for the working poor, reductions in the Social Security payroll tax. … Even if they don’t pass, proposing them and fighting for them will offer the public a stark choice—the kind of distinctions on which elections are won. If Republicans want to run for re-election as the party that killed middle-class benefits in order to preserve tax breaks for the wealthy, Democrats can emerge with a healthy majority. … The Democrats should realize that their political future and the national interest in expanding education, health care and retirement security are one and the same. Speaking about the surplus, Senator Phil Gramm, a Republican, was candid enough to admit, “If the Democrats could spend it all, they could be the majority party for another 50 years.”

Four days later, the New Republic agreed that Democrats should ram through the Senate bills designed to put Republicans ” on record” in unpopular positions. “In public, Daschle may need to echo the media’s cliches about compromise and conciliation,” said the magazine. “But his real goal should be to dismantle the president’s benevolent public image and to lay out an agenda upon which the Democratic Party can retake power one day soon.” Indeed, the magazine reported, Daschle was already pursuing this ” win with gridlock” approach:

The best he can do is lose strategically—by forcing Republicans to kill popular Democratic legislation. … Daschle’s plan is to quickly bring to the floor a slew of bills, each poll-tested to ensure its popularity … a patients’ bill of rights, a prescription-drug benefit, a minimum-wage hike, and possibly legislation addressing the energy “crisis,” which Democrats increasingly cite as their great hope for ruining Bush’s popularity. Electoral reform, a handy way of reminding people how Bush got into office, could join the list this summer. … House GOP leaders are already vowing to serve as a “fire wall” against such initiatives. But that’s fine with Daschle—since it means Democrats can run against Tom DeLay in 2002. If some legislation makes it through the House and onto the president’s desk, all the better. Says the Democratic strategist, “We’re in effect going to dare them to veto everything we do.”

Wedgislation, as sketched in these accounts, differs from serious legislation in five ways. First, it is cynical. It assumes that compromise is illusory or impossible, and therefore the best option is to “lose strategically.” Second, it is substantively dishonest. Refundable tax credits for the working poor are, at best, subsidies allocated on the basis of government-defined virtue and protected from budgetary scrutiny by concealment in the tax code. Reductions in the Social Security tax, absent corresponding reductions in Social Security benefits, betray without candor the premise that Social Security is a trust fund rather than a welfare program. Raising the minimum wage in today’s troubled economy is, as the New Republic observes, reckless. And capping energy prices is foolish from the liberal standpoint of conservation as well as from the conservative standpoint of market economics.

Third, wedgislation is procedurally dishonest. Too ashamed to admit that they’re out to destroy their opponent’s image rather than to enact laws, wedgislators are obliged—and advised—to mouth “cliches about compromise.” Fourth, wedgislation puts trivial but politically profitable issues ahead of issues that are more significant and more difficult. Would the country be better off if every precinct got rid of punch-card voting? Yes. Is this problem sufficiently chronic or pervasive to merit the prompt attention of the world’s most important deliberative body? No. It’s just a free slam at Bush. Fifth, the comforting, consequentialist logic of wedgislation—”By advancing bogus bills in this session, we’ll win the election and be able to advance real bills in the next session”—lures politicians deeper into the Carvillian rationalization that “their political future and the national interest” are “one and the same.” Spending the whole surplus in order to make yourself “the majority party for another 50 years” begins to seem not just rational but right.

Republicans are hardly immune to this disease. Having lost the majority’s power to wedgislate through bills, they’ve decided to wedgislate through amendments. Last week, Republican Senate leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., told Wall Street Journal columnist Paul Gigot that he felt “liberated” and that being in the minority was “a lot more fun.” Why? “Mr. Lott will no longer have the burden of control or accomplishment. He’s free to be more nakedly political,” Gigot explained. Republicans are tired of being forced “to cast difficult votes that show up later in 30-second TV spots. On the tax bill alone, Democrats offered 43 losing amendments or motions designed to help their candidates in 2002,” Gigot recalled. “Mr. Lott says he now plans on returning the favor. ‘We’re going to have lots of very juicy amendments …’ he says.”

For openers, Lott wants to amend Bush’s education bill to protect the Boy Scouts’ right to exclude gay kids and scoutmasters. The amendment would withhold federal aid from schools that deny the scouts access to their facilities. “If [Daschle] thinks we’re not going to have full debate and votes on the issues, all the way from missile defense to making sure that schools don’t discriminate against the Boy Scouts, good luck,” Lott warned. According to the New Republic, “GOP strategists are suggesting that Republicans—having passed education and tax cut bills—reconcile themselves to gridlock for the next year and a half and try to force the Democrats into unpopular votes on poll-tested, symbolic issues,” such as “guns, partial-birth abortion, even flag-burning—in hopes that they will swing even more blue-collar male voters into the GOP’s column in 2002.”

The pattern in these issues is their pure symbolism. Partial-birth abortions account for fewer than one in 1,000 pregnancy terminations, but debating them makes pro-choicers look extreme. Gay Boy Scouts aren’t exactly pouring out of the closet, but defending the innocence of youngsters makes great politics. Flag-burning is virtually nonexistent, but it’s easy to score points against senators who refuse on constitutional grounds to ban it. If conservatives were serious about legislating on these issues, as opposed to wedgislating, they’d offer amendments to ban second-trimester abortions, shield companies from discrimination lawsuits by gay employees, and expand the definition of treason.

Perversely, wedgislation is a natural outgrowth of democracy. The framers of the U.S. Constitution envisioned the Senate as a gathering of esteemed men chosen by state governments to apply their wisdom to issues their constituents didn’t necessarily understand. Over time, the selection of senators was delegated directly to citizens. As public literacy, knowledge, and communications improved, people thought of elections more as referendums on issues than as transfers of voting proxies to wise men. Politicians campaigned not just for offices but for mandates. The wisest candidate didn’t necessarily get the job, but most voters got the political program they wanted.

As information networks gained breadth and speed, the feedback loop accelerated. Legislators spent less time completing the work they’d been assigned in the last election and more time preparing for the next one. The mindset of strategic efficiency, exported from the economic to the political marketplace, refined private polling from an observational to an engineering science. Politicians learned not how to serve or honor the electorate but how to placate, charm, and inflame it. The more attention they paid to the opportunities suggested by this week’s polls, the less they paid to the will expressed in last year’s ballots. In theory, elections were a means to legislation; in practice, legislation was just another means to election. The framers’ system of accountability had outsmarted itself.

From this historical perspective, wedgislation is, as literally as possible, a democratic cancer. It is electioneering run amok—overrunning the legislature, thwarting cooperation, crowding out the nation’s urgent business, and smothering a more considered interpretation and implementation of the people’s will. Wedgislators imagine that they’re doing God’s work by plaguing the enemy. But the plague is the greater threat. If each election resolves nothing more than the numerical baseline for the next, what’s the point? “We have a moral obligation to deliver the agenda we were elected the majority to achieve,” Sen. Lott declared in a memo to fellow Republicans last weekend. To get there, he argued, “We must begin to wage the war today for the election in 2002.” And 2004, and 2006, and 2008 … It’s a good thing we’re not paying these people to get anything done.