If you want an example of the broken Senate, you could do worse than read Meredith Shiner’s story on the food safety bill.
The background: A food safety bill has been bottled up in the Senate since last summer, when the House passed it. It has overwhelming support from both consumer groups and even industry. It would basically bulk up the inspection process at the FDA and give them the authority to order recalls, rather than hoping the producers do it voluntarily. It passed the House with bipartisan support.
But Tom Coburn doesn’t dig it because the new authority and tools for the FDA would cost 1/700th of what it would cost to extend tax cuts to millionaires (which Coburn supports). So he’s blocked it and wants offsets. That would seemingly be easy enough, but of course those offsets have to meet Coburn’s satisfaction. And he’s using the fight over offsets to get other priorities out of the bill or off the floor. The Senate hasn’t taken the time to overrule Coburn on any of these points yet.
It looked briefly that a deal was nearing last night, but it turned out that Coburn was trying to lie his way to victory. This is incredible:
Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) attempted to move the legislation, which would overhaul a nearly century-old regulatory system, via unanimous consent, but Republican Tom Coburn of Oklahoma objected to the offer. Coburn, in turn, made his own offer, using an amendment he wrote — and for which he was guaranteed an up-or-down vote in Reid’s original proposal — as the basis of the bill.
What happened next was a scene of confusion on the floor: Reid seemed to believe that Coburn was making a good-faith compromise, telling the Oklahoma Republican he’d “see if there is something we can do to move the ball down the field” only to learn from aides shortly after leaving the floor that he had been duped by legislative wordplay.
The Coburn offer would require the food safety package, which is an authorization bill that the Congressional Budget Office scores as not needing offsets, to be fully paid for. Coburn asked for votes on three amendments — two less than Reid’s original five — including a vote on the substitute amendment “which is fully offset and has been agreed to by both managers.” The problem is that the two managers of the bill, Democrat Tom Harkin of Iowa and Mike Enzi of Wyoming, only agreed to their provision, not to Coburn’s proposal. It was a twist of words, and an unspoken comma, that made all the difference for negotiators.
Coburn was proposing his bill, which did include offsets, while making it seem like at first blush he was offering the agreed-upon text right back to Reid. The move left Democrats scrambling to figure out what had just happened before they realized they were no closer to an agreement than they were earlier in the day.
Better, Coburn put pay-fors in the bill without disclosing what they are. Regardless, he would get a vote on his amendment, but he refused to move forward unless his amendment basically became the bill.
Because Democratic leaders don’t want to take up the floor time to overcome Coburn’s objections – and he’s had similar objections to hundreds of bills in this Congressional session – we’re probably not going to get a food safety bill, even after all the recalls the past couple years, even after all the support.
The Senate is broken.