Listen up voters, Congress is messaging you
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - When is legislation put up for a vote but never expected to become law?
Answer: When it's in Congress, where an increasing number of purely symbolic votes are expected this election year as a divided Congress tries to make points with voters.
"Both sides do it," said Republican campaign strategist Ron Bonjean. "It's called message voting."
Message voting is criticized by all sides, yet both Republicans and Democrats regularly use the tactic to drive home points to voters and offer fodder for campaign attack ads.
With gridlock expected this year on Capitol Hill - as last year - and a November election looming, the frequency of message voting is expected to rise, congressional aides and Hill experts say. The votes are often closely timed to public opinion polls showing voter sentiments on an issue.
"What you do is manipulate the legislative process with an eye toward generating content for commercials during the heat of a campaign," said Phil Singer, a Democratic strategist.
For example, Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid plans to force votes on bills calling for job creation and the rebuilding of roads and bridges, all funded with tax hikes on the rich.
Sure, Democrats know Republicans will block the measures. Yet Democrats figure the action will demonstrate that Republicans are more interested in protecting the wealthy than helping the middle class and poor.
With polls showing most Americans favor higher taxes for the rich, Democrats also hope the votes will bolster President Barack Obama's claim that Republicans are obstructionists who are to blame for a do-nothing Congress.
On the other side of the Capitol, House Speaker John Boehner, the top U.S. Republican, will be busy with his own message votes to cast Democrats as the problem.
Boehner intends to force votes on Obama's energy, regulatory and job policies to showcase rising gasoline prices and a stubbornly high unemployment rate.
House Republicans had a message vote this month to support the Keystone pipeline project, rejected by Obama as an environmental threat.
Republicans argue the project, which would transport oil from Canada to U.S. facilities in Texas, would create thousands of jobs and bolster energy independence.
Craig Holman of Congress Watch, a nonpartisan watchdog group, said: "It's a sorry state of affairs when both sides realize that working together and compromise have completely fallen apart and about the only thing left is 'message voting.'"
Yet, Holman added, perhaps such voting will help shake up Congress and break the gridlock. "So message away," he said.
It's unclear if message votes and ad campaigns built around them have much effect on voters. At worst they could backfire and stoke public frustration with lawmakers in Washington who are frequently perceived as caring more about partisan gamesmanship than solving the country's problems.
The administration's health care plan is certain to generate message voting as Republicans try to keep focus on it in 2012.
The Republican campaign committee has already targeted some Democrats with Internet ads featuring a gathering storm as the narrator talks about "a cloud over our economy" created by what critics call "Obamacare."
Both sides accuse the other of self-serving "message votes," while insisting they are driven by policy, not politics.
Some critics call message voting a waste of time; others say it is just part of the slow-moving democratic process.
No one tallies the number of message votes each session, but overall, less than 3 percent of bills introduced become law. America's founding fathers intentionally made it difficult to pass legislation to pressure lawmakers to deliberate and compromise.
Some message votes consume only a few hours. Others may take days before members agree on the rules for considering the measure or the timing of the roll call vote.
Last month, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, who routinely blocks Democratic bills with procedural roadblocks, criticized message voting led by Democrats as a distraction.
"Americans want a government that's simpler, streamlined, and secure," he said on the Senate floor. "But we won't be able to achieve these things if Democrats refuse to try, if they've decided to spend the next year on show votes and legislation that's designed for bus tours instead of bill signings."
Democrats on the House side snapped back at Republicans for orchestrating a symbolic vote to cut the U.S. deficit by extending a two-year pay freeze for federal workers.
Republicans passed the bill, but only after tacking on a provision that also froze pay for U.S. lawmakers. Democrats either had to vote for it or been seen as backing a pay hike for themselves.
"Very clever," scoffed House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, the chamber's No. 2 Democrat. "A very good 30-second ad."
But federal workers shouldn't fret.
The bill seems certain to die in the Senate where Democrats back Obama's proposed cost-of-living increase for them.
In coming months, Republicans plan to vote to repeal Obama's new rule requiring free birth control services for employees of religiously affiliated institutions.
Backers say the rule provides needed health care while critics charge it violates religious freedom, issues that can be the subject of attack ads for both sides.
Democrats also plan to force votes on legislation to require greater campaign finance disclosure. Republicans, who tend to get more money from big spenders, are expected to block it.
Republicans seeking to paint Democrats as fiscally reckless may turn into TV and radio spots votes on failed legislation to require a balanced federal budget.
"The point of these votes is to use them as 'proof points' in making an argument for or against a given candidate," said Democratic strategist Singer.
"The trick with these votes is to try to tie them to what is going on in the news at any given moment," Singer said.
If Mitt Romney wins the Republican presidential nomination, Democrats may quickly mark his victory with a message vote.
Aides say Democrats may rename Obama's proposed "Buffett rule," which would require millionaires to pay a tax rate of at least 30 percent, the "Romney rule."
Buffett, an American billionaire investor, has urged Democrats to promote greater tax fairness.
Romney, like Buffett, has paid less than a 30 percent tax rate, and thus, a smaller rate than many middle-class Americans.
"We may have plenty of votes on the 'Romney rule,'" a Democratic aide said. "We won't call it messaging votes. We'll call it good policy."
(Reporting By Thomas Ferraro; Editing by Marilyn W. Thompson and Cynthia Osterman)
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