Congress isn't designed to top the polls

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By Hal Rhodes

At this very minute, hundreds of men and women, working for scores of pollsters, are on the phone pressing whomever is at the other end of the line to reveal his or her opinions about heaven knows what.

Almost everyone has received calls of this sort, and many of us hang up when we realize what they’re about.

Granted, polls can be informative, but the questions they pursue are often as predictable as they are banal.

Take the question about Americans’ assessment of Congress, any Congress–past or present.  The results never vary: Americans aren’t high on Congress.

There has been a spate of such polls lately, including one by Albuquerque-based Research and Polling Inc. for the Albuquerque Journal. Predictably 60 percent of the New Mexicans queried have a dim view of Congress.

Which computes: Only those who like messy decision-making processes can love our Congress?

But that’s how the constitutional framers intended it: Cumbersome, slow, and ponderous.

To get a piece of legislation out of Congress, majorities in the Senate and House of Representatives must approve the measure in exactly the same language.  

Those are the bare bones. The guts of the process are committees and subcommittees galore, run by chairmen or chairwomen with powers capable of facilitating or frustrating a bill’s passage through two institutions with arcane rules and procedures that can screw up the legislative process faster than you can say filibuster.

Consider Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D- Mont.) and the travails of health care reform.

In the Senate those travails are complicated by the fact that any health-reform bill must be approved by both the Health and Labor Committee and the Finance Committee before a full Senate vote can be taken. What’s more, differences in bills emerging from those committees must be reconciled before a Senate vote.

The same recent poll that earthed the disdain many New Mexicans have for Congress also discovered that, in equal measure, they hold their two U.S. senators in high regard.  

It’s a fascinating finding, not least because their senior senator, Democrat Jeff Bingaman, serves on both Senate committees handling health-care reform legislation.

The Health-Labor panel moved on health reform expeditiously, passing out a bill similar to what the president seeks, including a public insurance plan for those who wish it–naturally, without a single committee Republican vote.

The Finance Committee, meanwhile, was tied up for weeks as Baucus struggled doggedly, if quixotically, to fashion something that might attract a vote or two from the Party of No.

The process went on so long that eventually a so-called “Gang of Six” – three Dems, including Bingaman, and three Republicans — took over the negotiations.

Last week Baucus released his reform proposal – again, with nary a Finance Committee Republican onboard.

Baucus’s version of reform is likely to pass out of the Finance Committee with the majority Democrats voting for it, even though public options, which Bingaman and other Dems support, were just rejected.

But they’ll vote for it anyway, because at long last the two Senate committees–Health-Labor and Finance – will then have something to reconcile and send to the whole Senate for a vote.   

It will seem like a lifetime when that vote finally comes, but assuming reconciliation of the two committees’ measures, at least a vote can be taken.

Of course, that leaves the Senate and the House to reconcile their differences on health reform.

Any wonder Congress never flies high in the polls?

James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay didn’t give a fig about future polls when they created our Congress.

©2009 New Mexico News Services