Games Congresspeople Play

With about 30 legislative days left this year, Republicans have decided to spend a good part of that time focusing on the issue of gay marriage. Yes, they still haven't passed a budget, most of the appropriations bills, or legislation like class-action reform (which went on life support recently) but no matter -- this year is about politicking, not governing.

The Senate will debate and likely hold a vote on a constitutional ban on gay marriage this week. Because it's a constitutional amendment, the bill needs the support of two-thirds of the Senate to pass. In such a partisan chamber, it's hard to get a simple majority to pass a bill these days. Republicans acknowledge that the bill doesn't have enough votes, but they're going ahead with it anyway to score political points.

As Sen. Dick Durbin noted on the Senate floor on July 7, the GOP's plan amounts to a “political grandstand. ... It really demeans this great Constitution we have sworn to uphold that we are playing games” by bringing up the proposed amendment without the Senate Judiciary Committee thoroughly vetting it first. Bypassing the committee in this way is something, as he has said, that has happened only a few times in recent history.

“It is just a record vote to put members on the spot and to try to gas up the special interest groups that feel strongly on this issue,” Durbin continued. “That really does not address the issues working families care about.”

The timing of the vote supports Durbin's argument. Frist insists that “activist judges” in states like -- surprise, surprise -- John Kerry's home of Massachusetts are forcing the Senate to take up the issue now, making it more important than helping the economy along or holding down high gas prices. They say it has nothing to do with the start of the Democratic convention on July 26 in Boston (Massachusetts again). Right. They've also got some weapons of mass destruction in Iraq they'd like to show you.

Last month, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay said Senate Republicans were foolish to hold a vote on the constitutional amendment even though they knew it would not pass. He also said he would move to hold “some sort of vote” on the bill in the House this month. But on July 7, DeLay changed his mind and said the House might vote on a constitutional amendment in September.

“I realized we're going to need a constitutional amendment if we want to protect marriage,” he said.

What DeLay realized was that he could get more bang from his political buck by visiting the issue in September instead, and that's now his plan. By having one chamber consider the issue in July and the other in September, that's two chances for voters to get riled up.

Some Republicans are trying to make the case that spending time on the gay-marriage ban makes sense even given the limited time on the calendar. The question of judges trying to change the definition of marriage is “certainly on the minds of a lot of my constituents,” Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona said.

But, as Durbin said, Democrats should be pointing out to voters what's not getting done while Republicans pretend to legislate. Sen. Bill Nelson recounted that at a town hall meeting in Florida over the July Fourth recess, an elderly woman began crying because she couldn't afford both prescription drugs and her home. Durbin talked about the “middle-class squeeze across America.” Sen. Barbara Boxer mentioned college-tuition costs.

She added, “I have never had one person in California come up to me and say: Senator, the most important thing facing us is gay marriage. That is just ruining my life. Take that up. Ban it because it is what I think about night and day.”

It's good to see Democrats expose the nakedness with which congressional Republicans are pushing this issue. That's not hard, of course; the GOP isn't being all that skillful about it. Not content to just waste time on a gay-marriage ban, Senate Republicans plan a vote on another pressing issue soon: a constitutional amendment on flag burning. Never mind that flag burning does not rate among voters' top concerns, according to recent polls; it's not even on the list. But it's a way for the GOP to paint Democrats as unpatriotic.

Lawmakers have already frittered away much of the 108th Congress. It may be too much to demand that things change now. But considering how much work they have to do -- appropriations bills fund the federal government, so ideally Congress would pass them before their target adjournment date of October 1 -- you would think they would focus only on those issues that have a chance of passage. You would also think they would listen to voters about their top concerns. Since that doesn't seem to be happening, though, maybe voters need to send a message that's loud and clear -- and put a party that's actually listening in charge.

Mary Lynn F. Jones is online editor of The Hill. Her column on Capitol Hill politics runs each week in the online edition of The American Prospect.