How a bill becomes an attack ad

It’s mid-September, and before skipping town to campaign, Congress is wrapping up legislative business. One week, Republican leadership brings to the floor a spate of bills focusing on Iran.

Each of the bills would, in some way, undermine the nuclear deal the U.S. signed with that country last year.

Eighth District Rep. Rick Nolan, a vocal supporter of the Iran accord, votes no on all of them. Almost immediately after the votes are tallied, the GOP’s campaign arms are out with media declaring that “Nolan stands with Iranian officials” and “plays politics” with U.S. security.

Those bills had no chance of going anywhere, but that was beside the point: the attack ads write themselves. If you’re looking to knock off a vulnerable incumbent like Nolan, you need all the weapons you can find.

Enter the messaging bill.

Majority rules

So-called messaging bills are pieces of legislation unlikely to become law, but that are brought to the floor to accomplish a strategic political goal.

Since the Republican majority exerts control over Congress’ schedule and what it considers, it has a lot of leeway to offer these kinds of bills in order to put vulnerable Democrats in tough political spots.

The Iran bills are great examples: they forced Democrats to choose between running afoul of their party or getting tarred as weak on national security by Republican opponents.

One of these bills was the Prohibiting Future Ransom Payments to Iran Act, which would prevent the U.S. government from making payments to the government of Iran, for basically any reason.

Republicans also brought to the floor the Iran Leadership Asset Transparency Act, which would, among other things, require the U.S. Treasury Department to compile a comprehensive report on the financial holdings of top Iranian officials.

There’s no doubt that Republicans would like to see these bills become law: most of the GOP opposes the Iran deal, and the legislation, if passed, would meaningfully undermine the accord.

But becoming law was never really in the cards: the White House confirmed it would veto both bills if they were to arrive on President Obama’s desk, and there would almost certainly be too few votes in Congress to override his veto.

But the House passed them anyway, with virtually all Republicans voting in favor, and the bulk of Democrats voting no.

Nolan went with the wishes of his party and the president — and it didn’t take long for his political enemies to pounce.

Results of the vote on the Iran Leadership Asset Transparency Act were released at 7:10 P.M. on September 21; thirty minutes later, the National Republican Congressional Committee had an email blast proclaiming that “Rick Nolan Stands with Iranian Officials.”

“Rick Nolan has once again picked Iran over America.” the release blustered. “His vote against the Iranian Leadership Asset Transparency Act proves Nolan would rather protect Iran’s privacy than fight to stop the threat of terrorism.”

For the vote on the Iranian ransom payments bill on September 22, Nolan also voted no, with the rest of his party. The next morning, the NRCC sent out a release saying “Rick Nolan is Putting Politics Ahead of Our National Security.”

“[It’s] just another example of House Democrats putting partisan politics ahead of commonsense solutions that strengthen our national security,” the committee said.

National security and terrorism have been prominent features of Nolan’s rematch against Republican challenger Stewart Mills, so it’s natural that the GOP would look for chances to use the issue to make him look bad.

Nolan told MinnPost the GOP-backed bills were all designed to undermine the Iran deal, which he said he adamantly supports.

“Do they do a lot of this stuff for political positioning? Yeah,” he said. “I think it is just purely partisan and designed to create attack ads.”

Nolan wasn’t the only Democrat under fire over the Iran votes. California Rep. Ami Bera, himself locked in a tight election, was the other Democrat singled out by the NRCC for his votes on the Iran legislation.

Two can play at this game

Just because Democrats are in the minority doesn’t mean they’re helpless — they’ve also used the legislative process to advance election-year messaging.

Lately, they have focused on gun politics. Democrats want to see Congress take up gun control measures, like expanded background checks, but the GOP has signalled it is open to only the most modest gun legislation.

Over 25 times in the past year, Democrats have attempted to bring up a specific law — the “no fly, no buy” provision to block those on the government no-fly lists from purchasing firearms  — for a vote in the House.

The minority can try to force a vote by filing the legislation they want as an amendment to a bill already heading to the floor.

Each time they’ve tried to file the gun amendment, House Republicans have dismissed it or voted it down, allowing Democrats to claim that the GOP is “blocking” gun-control measures — a claim they quickly turn around for attacks on Republicans.

The Democrats’ House campaign arm, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, hammered 3rd District Rep. Erik Paulsen on the issue.

In a release pegged to Monday’s presidential debate, a DCCC press release declared Paulsen “Has Repeatedly Failed To Take Steps to Keep Minnesotans Safe.”

In another September press release, the DCCC highlighted the legislation to attack Paulsen, calling him “utterly clueless” and “unwilling to stand up to his party and support tough and smart policies that would keep Americans safe.” City Pages covered that vote.

This fall, Paulsen faces State Sen. Terri Bonoff, in a contest that is perhaps the Democrats’ best chance to win this west metro seat in some time. Using the gun bills to make a point — even if they are going nowhere anytime soon — is just good election-year politics.

As lawmakers bolted out of D.C. on Wednesday to spend the next month on the campaign trail, don’t be surprised if Democrats’ push on guns, and Republicans’ maneuvering on Iran, show up in an attack ad near you.

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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 09/30/2016 - 01:10 pm.

    The sad thing is that we pay these guys to do nothing in Congress (ask yourself what good for America is in all these gotcha only-for-politics activities).

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 09/30/2016 - 03:53 pm.

      The Even Sadder Thing

      It doesn’t seem to bother us very much.

      That’s not to say that we don’t complain about it. Sure, everyone decries the lack of substance in political campaigns, but in the end, most voters seem to make their decisions on this kind of nonsense.

  2. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 09/30/2016 - 02:05 pm.

    Subtle difference

    As part of the sanctions program, the US has withheld money clearly owed to the Iranians for past commercial transactions. When one pays a ransom, one pays one’s own’money. Returning money which ultimately belongs to the party that wants it is not a ransom, and calling it one is a lie. Part of lifting sanctions is each side slowly giving things that it wants. At least at this point, the US government honors its obligations and repays it debts. Maybe with a President Trump, we will become the same kind of deadbeat he has been in his business career.

    When Democrats pass a bill to deny guns to those too dangerous to be allowed to fly on commercial airlines, they are simply advocatng for a sensible homeland security measure. Most of the people on the list are not US citizen, and in my opinion, that means they have no gun rights. If there is anyone paying a ransom in this case, it is Republicans repaying the NRA for campaign contributions. When they make no effort to improve the quality of the list, they really cannot use that as an excuse for inaction.

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