Practical Internet Politics: Understanding Block and Blame, Catch and Release

I loved reading Jon Udell’s post on net-enhanced democracy. Back in 2006, when I started to do what Jon did so wonderfully in his essay, the hope was exactly this — that some generally less political individuals would take these tools and do what poli-bloggers were doing — dig out the backstory and deflate the press coverage on very specific issues.

And while Jon is in no way your average person, the fact he was able to get his specific answer on pellet stoves outside of any political support network is pretty amazing.

But as I sit here today reading Jon’s essay on how Sununu used his vote on cloture to gut clean energy initiatives from the Foreclosure Prevention Act of 2008 Energy Independence and Security Act [thx, Jon!], I can’t help but think of the bill that was put in limbo by a cloture vote today, a bill that would have doubled heating aid to low income families this winter.

The Democrats tried to schedule that heating aid bill for a vote, and the Republicans stopped them.

Reading Jon’s essay caused me to think about the reasons I haven’t looked up how Sununu voted on this newer motion — because ultimately it doesn’t matter what his vote was. The truth is what your individual Senator does on bills matters quite a lot less than you think.

Let me explain why.

The reason why the heating aid bill (S. 3186) did not pass a cloture vote is because the Republicans have been trying to get an offshore drilling provision in a passable bill for a while now, and the mechanism they have used to do this is to filibuster any bill the Democrats see as must-pass, and have the leadership make a deal: we’ll stop our filibuster if you pass our offshore drillling agenda.

The current focus of this effort is a bill on the floor right now: S.3268. This bill was originally about limiting market speculation in oil futures, a policy most Americans support (and most Senators support). However, the GOP has decided to filibuster bringing this bill to a vote unless it includes provisions that lift offshore drilling bans.

Today the Democrats tried to table this speculation bill which has been in filibuster limbo for days now so that they could move onto a widely supported heating aid bill. In an effort to up the stakes, the Republicans effectively filibustered a motion to bring the heating aid bill to the floor. (Some people may be confused by my use of the word filibuster here, but filibustering does not require speeches anymore — under Senate Rule 22, it simply requires requesting a cloture vote to end debate then defeating that motion. This is, for all intents and purposes, a filibuster.)

So they’ve kept the heating aid bill off the floor, despite the fact that as we speak families are scrambling to figure out how they are going to heat their homes and want to see firm action from the government. And the GOP has done this as a way to increase their chances of getting offshore drilling passed.

Now why would they engage in such a game of chicken?

The idea is this — the public sees the Senate as controlled by Democrats — if the Democrats can’t get the heating aid passed, the Republicans can point to the fact the Democrats are a “do-nothing” Congress that cant get anything passed.

On the other hand, if they are successful in getting the offshore drilling provision into something, they’ve managed to force major legislation through the Congress using only the 41 votes it takes to filibuster. And even if they are not successful at this, they get to keep the debate about offshore drilling, which they think will play well in certain key states.

This strategy, paired with a media that loves the “Democrats in disarray” meme, has allowed the Republicans to stop major legislation in the Senate at levels that are historically unprecedented. Here’s a comparison of cloture votes over the last 30 or so years:

[This graphic above is from here, but the best history on this is from McClatchy, which continues its tradition of being the only news agency doing its job. We are currently at 127 cloture votes with 5 months left in the session.]

Notice the outlier? This is not a story you’ll hear in the media. But it is impossible to understand any vote in the Senate without understanding this strategy.

Which brings me back to today’s heating aid bill. The Republicans need 41 votes to hold this bill hostage to offshore drilling concerns — or more specifically, they need to make sure there are not 60 votes for cloture (cloture requires 3/5 of the Senate to vote Yea, not 3/5 of present Senators).

So what’s the strategy here? It’s called Catch and Release. The Republican leadership gets all the votes it needs — 41 people to vote Nay or not show up. Then it hands out passes — they let certain vulnerable Senators up for reelection vote for the bill (or in this case, possibly Senators from the oil-heated Northeast.). Those passes could theroretically be up to 8 in this session, but it’s usually somewhat less.

As long as they don’t cut it *too* close they can block the bill and burnish a couple “maverick” crendentials.

So did Sununu get a “catch and release” or not? Did our other Senator, Senator Gregg get one?

Internet tools can tell you that — but what they can’t tell you is that in this case it doesn’t matter, that what matters in this case is an overall party strategy which has been used to rule from the minority in a historicaly unprecendented way. And that the money here that matters most is not neccesarily the donations of the industries to the individual campaigns (though, believe me, that matters), but quite possibly the general slush of party senatorial campaign money.

Given that — what is the best approach to building our emerging digital democracy?

I think it’s maybe what we see here. I’m an optimist ultimately — Jon’s discovery regarding where his wood pellet tax credit went *is* significant in the way it personalized the issue — the specificity of that really brings the issue home. And it’s significant in that it showed the media narrative around the issue to be what it is — a farce.

Those are big and important things. But I think it’s also significant in that Jon’s post prompted me to post this explanation here, on my personal blog, rather than the progressive venues I’d normally post it to. As more people delve into these tools, the conversation around how our process really works can occur. And hopefully it can start to occur in channels outside the poliwonkablogosphere that I love so much but that others, well, not so much.

The first reaction to tools in the hands of novices is always that the novices don’t have the proper context. But use those tools and the context will come to you. Whether you asked for it or not.

Update: I broke down and checked THOMAS. John Sununu, our Senator who is up for re-election this fall, voted for cloture. Judd Gregg, who is up in 2010, did not.

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