The country has been treated to a classic case of political theater, and few even knew about it.
People missed the cynical drama staged by Senate Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell mainly because much of the media spread what amounted to “fake” news.
The story began in January when some newly elected House Democrats launched a proposal dubbed “the Green New Deal.” The “New Deal” was meant to echo the broad social legislation enacted to combat the Great Depression in the 1930s. The new version would bring sweeping economic and environmental action.
The proposals were ambitious and idealistic, reflecting deep concern about the deterioration of the environment and the income gap. Opponents immediately ridiculed them, claiming they would outlaw everything from airplanes to cows’ farts.
While it was obvious the proposals were a set of lofty objectives, backed by Senate Democrats running for president, they lacked detail. They proposed no funding and aimed for success in ten years, which was clearly impossible. Critics would claim they were impractical or would harm the economy.
No member of Congress expected that the Green New Deal could be adopted before the 2020 elections. Some Democrats hoped to see if it could get the party on record in support of its goals. Many others were wary of endorsing extreme and controversial proposals.
Republicans relished the prospect of a split among Democrats and the possibility of being able to box the Democrats into a politically vulnerable endorsement of the proposal. To them, the Green New Deal was not a challenge, but an opportunity.
McConnell himself proposed the Green New Deal bill in the Senate. Republicans staged a symbolic floor debate to exaggerate and lampoon it. The GOP leader had made sure that there would be no committee hearings on the bill and no possibility for other senators to amend it.
He then scheduled his bill for what has been called a “bluff vote.” Though the Republicans had proposed the bill, they really opposed it and would seek to kill it. That was their bluff. They apparently hoped that some Democrats, to please the party’s most liberal wing, would err and vote for the proposal, causing an internal party split.
A couple of weeks ago, the bill was brought before the Senate. Under today’s practices, the Senate would first have to vote to end debate before the bill itself would be considered. If the GOP blocked ending debate, the bill would theoretically remain alive. In fact, it would be buried.
The GOP could use this stealthy move to vote against their own bill without going on record in opposition to its lofty goals.
The Democrats countered by deciding simply to vote “present” when their names were called. In that way, they could avoid falling for the bluff. With no favorable votes and not enough votes to end debate, the bill would effectively be permanently shelved.
Everybody knew the script. The vote on cutting off debate followed predictable lines. All Republicans voted against ending debate and Democrats, except for four, voted “present.”
Three of the four were Democrats elected in normally Republican states. Their votes, throw-aways because they did not affect the outcome, might help them burnish their credentials with GOP voters back home.
The fourth senator was Maine’s Angus King. He is an independent member of the Senate but is aligned with the Democrats. He objected to the Green New Deal as being impractical, as did the Republicans and some Democrats, but he also objected to McConnell’s bluff strategy. Still, as an independent, he could vote this time with the GOP.
Then, the media coverage hid the whole unseemly ploy. Virtually all news reports said the Senate had voted down the Green New Deal. It surely would have done so if there had been a real vote, but the media downplayed or ignored that, above all, this was a “bluff vote” designed to split the Democrats.
No news reports noted the lack of the normal legislative consideration that would happen if the bill was taken seriously. The media allowed the GOP to get away with its bit of theater. It made no effort to explain what was in the bill or the reasoning behind it.
In school, students may be taught how laws are made in the federal government. The formal system described in the schoolroom is gone, replaced by the kind of tactics used on the Green New Deal. Can you find that fact in the evening news?
When government doesn’t work, people may be angry. But they often don’t know why.