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As Election Nears, Congress Is Expected To Be Less Productive


Let's look at the calendar now. We are seven months away from the midterm elections. Members of the House of Representatives and a good number of senators have turned much of their focus to campaigning. There are still votes happening in Congress, but often of a different kind. This year, we've seen a flurry of show votes: votes on bills with no realistic hope of passing, but are done to make political points. As NPR's Ailsa Chang reports, both parties have been in on it.

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: In eighth grade civics class, it was simple. You learned there were three branches of government: one that makes laws, one that carries out the laws and one that reviews those laws. Well, say the branch that's supposed to be making laws instead spends its time voting on bills nobody thinks has much chance of ever becoming law. What's the point? Democratic Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa says there's a method in this madness.

SENATOR TOM HARKIN: Just because we can't get it done doesn't mean we shouldn't promote it and push for it and vote for it.

CHANG: Harkin was just about to step into the chamber to vote on the Paycheck Fairness Act, a bill Democrats said would help women obtain equal pay. Everyone knew the Senate Republicans would successfully defeat the bill, but Harkin says it was important to have the vote, anyway.

HARKIN: I think the public has a right to know where we stand on these issues. That's why it's important to bring these up.

CHANG: There's a value in messaging.

HARKIN: Of course there's a value, because if we don't get it done now, maybe we'll get it done some other time, or later.

CHANG: Probably much later, as in way after the election, if even then. But before November rolls around, sit back and relax and enjoy the Congressional Show Vote Show of 2014. You won't see much legislation actually pass Congress, but what you will see is lots of votes. Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer of New York says expect this...

SENATOR CHUCK SCHUMER: What we are doing is focusing like a laser on the concerns of the middle class. Concerns of the middle class can trump the Republican attacks on the Affordable Care Act, because what Americans really care about is making their lives better.

CHANG: That's why Senate Democrats plan to push a bill to raise the minimum wage, even if it's expected to go nowhere in the House. Republicans will be forced to explain why they don't support the measure. So they're preemptively holding their own show votes. Here's House Majority Leader Eric Cantor.

REPRESENTATIVE ERIC CANTOR: We passed bill after bill that helps create jobs, grow wages and put money back into people's pockets. These bills, of course, are all stuck in the Senate, where partisan speeches take precedence over working, middle-class families.

CHANG: Oh, yeah: during this show vote showdown, one rule is you have to keep insisting it's the other side holding all the show votes.

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER: These political votes provide no answers. So, the House is going to continue to focus on the American people's priorities.

CHANG: That was Republican House Speaker John Boehner, to whom Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid would like to say, hey, look at how many times you guys voted to chip away at the Affordable Care Act.

SENATOR HARRY REID: Almost 60 times. What did Albert Einstein say? The definition of insanity, if someone tries to do something over and over again, and they get the same result, they're insane.

CHANG: It's the congressional game of I Know You Are, But What Am I? And the beauty of the game is there's no limit to what you can put in these bills. So, Larry Sabato at the University of Virginia says reach for the stars.

LARRY SABATO: The Democratic Senate and the Republican House are going to agree on practically nothing that matters. Therefore, the stakes are lower for legislation. You can put anything up for a vote that benefits you politically without having to worry about the consequences of it actually becoming law.

CHANG: The House has voted to block the EPA from regulating power plant carbon emissions. It also voted to eliminate the individual mandate under the healthcare law. And just last week, it passed a budget that makes deep cuts to Medicaid and food stamps. The Senate's going to ignore all that. It's passed an extension of long-term unemployment benefits, and another bill outlawing workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation. Sabato says don't worry if you haven't been glued to C-SPAN through all of this.

SABATO: They know that each of these votes can be converted into a devastating negative ad.

CHANG: Which means both parties will be recapping anything we might have missed. Ailsa Chang, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.

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