Congress, deal-making, and how the sausage gets made

The dome of the U.S. Capitol Building is reflected in a puddle on a rainy morning in Washington.
The dome of the U.S. Capitol Building is reflected in a puddle on a rainy morning in Washington.
The closer one looks at the $1.1 trillion spending package that barely cleared the House last night, the easier it is to notice its flaws. The so-called "CRomnibus" is filled with giveaways, rollbacks, and handouts that almost certainly don't belong there.
Kevin Drum made a compelling case yesterday that many critics have overlooked an important, big-picture detail: if you want bipartisan cooperation, this is what it looks like.

This is one of those things that demonstrates the chasm between political activists and analysts on the one side, and working politicians on the other. If you take a look at the bill, it does indeed have a bunch of objectionable features. People like me, with nothing really at stake, can bitch and moan about them endlessly. But you know what? For all the interminable whining we do about the death of bipartisanship in Washington, this is what bipartisanship looks like. It always has. It's messy, it's ugly, and it's petty. Little favors get inserted into bills to win votes. Other favors get inserted as payback for the initial favors. Special interests get stroked. Party whips get a workout. That's politics. The fact that it's happening right now is, in a weird sense, actually good news. It means that, for a few days at least, politics is working normally again.

I think that's largely correct. The old line about no one wanting to see how the sausage gets made applies to lawmaking for a reason -- neither process is pretty. For many Americans -- including plenty of Beltway pundits -- there's a sense that Democrats and Republicans can get stuff done if they just sit in a room and agree to work out a deal.
And here we have an excellent example of what happens when the parties do exactly that.
But I think there's one other relevant detail to this that I'd add to the mix.
While it's never pretty when these bipartisan, bicameral talks produce a thrown-together solution, what's a little different about 2014 is that Congress, by historical standards, really is broken to an unusual degree. The legislative branch still exists, of course, but its capacity for governing has atrophied to a level with no modern precedent.
That's relevant in this context for one simple reason: lawmakers realized that this spending bill was an extremely rare opportunity to advance their policy goals. Some of those goals had merit, and some were ridiculous, but in either case, members of Congress saw something unusual: a shortcut.
We all know that the usual legislative process is long and arduous. It involves a series of choke points -- hearings, committees, amendments, chambers, etc. -- all of which make failure easy. Apply that to the contemporary Congress, which struggles to complete even routine tasks, and members understand that their proposals are almost certain to die, regardless of popularity or merit.
But if a lawmaker can get that proposal squeezed into a spending package like this, all of a sudden, the choke points disappear. If the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, the "CRomnibus" is, in legislative terms, the shortest distance between drafting and law.
To be sure, this isn't an entirely new phenomenon, but my point is, the need to take advantage of these rare opportunities is more acute when the usual legislative process has broken down to such a farcical degree.
This was members' only chance to advance their ideas. Are we surprised they exploited it?