With a cynical eye cast toward the November election, members of Congress forced votes on the "Buffett Rule" and the Keystone pipeline knowing both would ultimately fail.
The real purpose for voting on the Buffett Rule and the Keystone pipeline was to embarrass the opposition and produce material for campaign attack ads.
These politically motivated votes are becoming increasingly common.
With no shortage of dire problems facing the nation, one would think Congress is too busy to waste more and more time on political gamesmanship.
"There has become an obsession with elections," Jennifer Duffy, an editor at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, told Bloomberg News. "That is what people think about almost more than anything else, and so instead of contemplating the political implications occasionally, they're considered first."
Both Republican and Democratic hands are dirty. A vote on the Keystone pipeline last month was a Republican affair; the Buffett Rule vote this week was engineered by Democrats.
With no chance of ever becoming law, both votes nevertheless achieved their goal.
"Even if you can't make a law, you can still make a point," John Pitney, a political scientist at California's Claremont McKenna College told Bloomberg News. "[Campaign workers] are watching these roll calls very carefully and preparing for attack ads."
Buffett Rule as Campaign WeaponThis week's vote on the Buffett Rule, forced by Senate Democrats, is typical of what's been going on.
President Barack Obama has made the Buffett Rule - a proposal to ensure that those making $1 million or more pay at least 30% in taxes - a major talking point in recent speeches.
The Democrats have brushed off criticism that revenue from the tax - about $47 billion over 10 years - will hardly dent the $3.8 trillion annual federal budget. A decade of Buffett Rule revenue would fund about 4.5 days of federal spending.
Nevertheless, several polls have shown more than 60% of Americans agree with the president on the need for the Buffett Rule. So Senate Democrats decided to force Republicans to vote on it.
President Obama immediately fired a verbal salvo at the GOP.
"Senate Republicans voted to block the Buffett Rule, choosing once again to protect tax breaks for the wealthiest few Americans at the expense of the middle class," the president said.
But Republicans have no intention of yielding.
"We've got a president who seems more interested in pitting people against each other than he is in actually doing what it takes to face these challenges head on," said Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-KY. "By wasting so much time on this political gimmick that even Democrats admit won't solve our larger problems, it's shown the president is more interested in misleading people than he is in leading."
But you can bet the GOP's "no" votes will figure prominently in attack ads later this year aimed at painting Republicans as pawns of the rich.
The Buffett Rule isn't going away, either. Several Democrats vowed to keep bringing the proposal back until the Republicans give in.
And even before Monday's vote, Democratic candidates were using Republican opposition to the Buffett Rule to score political points.
Democrat Elizabeth Warren, who is seeking to unseat Sen. Scott Brown, R-MA, sent an e-mail last week telling supporters that Brown agrees with likely GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney "that it's OK for millionaires and billionaires to pay a lower tax rate than everyone else."
GOP Uses Keystone Pipeline as a TrapMeanwhile, the Republicans have been trying to use public support of the Keystone pipeline to attack President Obama and the Democrats on energy policy. Polls show well over 60% of Americans want the pipeline built.
The pipeline would transport oil pumped from the Canadian tar sands to American refineries. Republicans say the Keystone pipeline would reduce U.S. dependence on foreign sources of oil, create jobs, and put downward pressure on high gas prices.
A vote in the Senate last month would have sped up the Keystone pipeline approval process, which President Obama delayed last fall for further study. The Republican goal was twofold: Pressure the president while getting Democrats on the record voting against the Keystone pipeline.
Expect to see those votes highlighted in many Senate races, particularly in states with a lot to gain from the pipeline.
Apart from Keystone, Congressional Republicans have set several other "vote traps" for their Democratic colleagues.
A few weeks ago House Republicans forced a vote on an incomplete version of the president's budget. It was defeated 414-0, supplying Republicans with a dramatic headline as well as future campaign fodder.
Next up for the Republicans is a House vote tomorrow (Thursday) on a 20% tax break for businesses that employ 500 or fewer workers - 99.9% of all U.S. companies. Democrats who vote against the bill risk getting tagged as anti-business and anti-jobs.
"Both parties are working hard to frame the agenda for the fall campaign," former Minnesota Representative Vin Weber, a Republican, told Bloomberg. "Certainly that's what the vote on the Buffett Rule is all about."
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