September 23, 2004,
Frivolous obstructionism was on display again in the U.S. Senate Tuesday. But don't try to adjust your C-SPAN picture; it's just another poignant example of what the Wall Street Journal calls the "Dead Zone," legislation submerged in a partisan procedural morass.
For the ninth time this Congress, Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania made a motion to go to conference committee (a process to reconcile different versions of legislation passed by the House and Senate) on a bill called the Charity Aid, Recovery, and Empowerment Act (CARE Act). And for the ninth time, Senate Democratic leaders blocked him, keeping their procedural padlocks tightly bolted on the Dead Zone doors.
This legislation provides significant incentives to boost giving to those in need at a time when many charities say their resources are running low. According to Santorum and Blunt, the legislation provides 878 million meals for hungry Americans over ten years and $2 billion in educational resources through IRA Charitable Rollover and gives 86 million low- and middle-income Americans some benefit for their charitable contributions.
It also received broad bipartisan support, passing the Senate 95-5 and the House 408-13. But Senate Democrats continue to say "no" to moving the bill to the final stage of the legislative process.
In a Capitol Hill press conference on Tuesday, Santorum and House Majority Whip Roy Blunt of Missouri (the chief architect of the legislation in the House) expressed frustrations and outlined a plan to get at least parts of the legislation enacted.
"Holding this bill back cheats American charities," Blunt said. "There's $2 trillion in IRAs that cannot be gifted without significant tax consequences," he said. "This bill has been blocked for one full year, and if we don't get it done, we'll have to start all over again next year."
Santorum and Blunt charged the Democratic leaders in the Senate with obstructionism, saying Senator Daschle and others take the attitude of, If the House wants to get this done, they can just pass the Senate bill. But that's not the way the legislative process works, Santorum said. "How do you get a compromise when one side says their way is the only way?" "If the House took the same position as the Senate is here, nothing would ever get done," Blunt added.
Republicans say the CARE Act stall is just one more chapter in an obstructionism volume of epic proportions, written by the Democratic senators this year. Blunt noted that you would not think it would be that hard to get something done that "503 out of 535 lawmakers supported."
Blocking the legislation by not agreeing to go to conference is a relatively new strategy, according to knowledgeable sources on the Hill. It's being used this year to stop legislation with overwhelming support that used to be blocked by filibuster. Since legislation like the CARE Act would garner enough votes to break a filibuster, stopping it by objecting to normally routine requests (like moving the bill to a conference committee) is a new procedural ploy invoked by the Senate Democrats.
Democrats justify their obstruction by arguing Republicans shut them out of negotiations when legislation moves to House-Senate conference, the final stage of the lawmaking process. But Santorum says he has assured Democratic leaders, both privately and publicly, that Republicans would create an open conference-committee process and guarantee full Democratic participation. Many Republicans believe the Democratic complaints are just a weak excuse to continue obstruction.
The two lawmakers announced at the news conference that they would seek another way around the procedural morass: trying to add provisions from the CARE Act to another tax bill already in a House-Senate conference. They noted it is not the optimal way to legislate, but may be the only way to provide the help an overwhelming majority in Congress wants to give charities. Whether they will succeed in adding some items from the CARE Act to another bill is unclear.
What is clear is the power of obstruction. It's mind-boggling that legislation supported by so many lawmakers, aimed at helping millions of Americans support their friends and neighbors in need, gets derailed so many times without serious consequences. If Santorum and Blunt's efforts do not succeed in Congress, voters may have to express their frustration with charities' getting cheated at the ballot box.
Gary Andres is vice chairman of policy and research at the Dutko Group Companies in Washington, D.C., and holds a Ph.D. in public policy from the University of Illinois-Chicago.