Congress uses last hour feeding `cats and dogs'

Minor measures passed to please voters at home

August 06, 2002|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Just before the lights were switched off for the summer on Capitol Hill last week, after the attention-grabbing votes, chest-thumping news conferences and passionate floor speeches, the Senate got down to business.

Not the business that will be written about in history books - such as granting President Bush "fast-track" trade authority, which was the last roll-call vote that senators cast before boarding airplanes to be whisked home for the monthlong August break.

This was the more mundane but politically invaluable task of passing the obscure, minor measures that are the legislative odds and ends of Congress - more often known as "cats and dogs."

The 29 noncontroversial measures the Senate passed Thursday before recessing at 9:32 p.m. were so minor that they did not need a recorded vote; they were swiftly approved, since no senator objected.

They were a typical pre-recess cross-section of parochial priorities and pet projects that generate little controversy in Washington but lots of kudos back home.

There was one by Sen. Bob Graham, a Florida Democrat, directing the federal government to study whether a mysterious stone circle discovered three years ago among the glittering skyscrapers of downtown Miami should be part of Biscayne National Park.

A bipartisan, multistate effort by Sens. Richard J. Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, and Don Nickles, an Oklahoma Republican, resulted in final passage of legislation that will authorize the government to reimburse energy giant Kerr-McGee Corp. - based in Oklahoma City - up to $365 million for environmental cleanup of a site it owns in West Chicago, Ill.

And Oregon Sens. Gordon Smith, a Republican, and Ron Wyden, a Democrat, did their part for the coming Lewis and Clark bicentennial celebration by clearing legislation allowing Fort Clatsop National Memorial in their state to expand to cover the last leg of the 19th-century expeditioners' journey.

Like college students waiting until the last moment to study for an exam, members of Congress scramble during the last two to three days before a long recess to make sure measures affecting their states or districts pass.

"There's nothing like the prospect of adjournment that concentrates the energies of the leaders and members to get these things done," says Thomas E. Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Given the arcane rules of the Senate, which allow any member to block any bill for any reason, anytime - and anonymously at that - Mann says, "They couldn't possibly get all their work done if they didn't do things this way."

These measures are the bread and butter of lawmakers' work in Washington and a crucial ingredient in satisfying their supporters at home.

"August is obviously the month that we know people are going to be out in their states with their constituents and meeting with a lot of people. They want to be able to go back and report on the things they've accomplished," said Gayle Osterberg, spokeswoman for Nickles, who as the assistant Republican leader is responsible for rounding up votes for his party.

Lawmakers hoping to speed noncontroversial cats and dogs through the Senate first must clear them with the proper committees. If nobody objects, party leaders "hot line" the measure, sending out electronic telephone messages to each of the 100 Senate offices announcing the legislation on the fast track and inviting anyone who objects to its passage to call immediately.

The measures are often bipartisan and mostly inoffensive, unlike spending "earmarks" in appropriations bills, often called pork, another reliable way for lawmakers to steer goodies to their states and districts.

Earmarks can provoke regional and partisan strife, because they require lawmakers to compete for slices of a finite chunk of federal spending. But cats and dogs - which usually just authorize funds but don't actually appropriate them - enjoy the strong momentum that comes with being utterly unimportant to almost any lawmaker but their sponsors, while being immensely meaningful to interests back home.

That is certainly the case in South Florida, where the Miami Circle - thought to be an ancient Native American site - has inspired a local and statewide effort to save it from development and sparked a kind of cult following.

"People consider there to be a mystery or a mystique to the site. ... It has an aura or a power to it that affects people," said Michael Spring, director of the Miami-Dade County Department of Cultural Affairs.

And on the northern coast of Oregon, completing the last leg of the Lewis and Clark trail is a high priority.

"Senators don't typically just go out on their own whims; they go in the direction of their constituents, and they saw the public support," says Scott Stonum, the acting superintendent of Fort Clatsop memorial, where this past weekend re-enactors dressed as Lewis and Clark and their comrades passed through, toting dugout canoes on their way to the Pacific coast.

Pushing narrow bills through is not the only way lawmakers get their goals accomplished as the last moments tick by on the congressional clock. Senators often use "holds," blocking bills or nominations, to secure key priorities at the eleventh hour.

This year, for example, Majority Whip Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat and his party's traffic cop for floor action, held up the confirmation of four Bush administration Agriculture Department nominees until White House budget officials agreed to release funds in which Reid was interested.

The Nevadan, whose state is home to Walker Lake and Pyramid Lake, was pressing for the release of $200 million included in the farm law Bush signed earlier this year for the conservation of desert lakes.

The administration relented, and the nominees were confirmed just before the Senate left for the summer.

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