WASHINGTON – Republican Rep. Ann Wagner of Missouri stood on the House floor earlier this month to champion her Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act, legislation that aims to protect infants born during abortions.
Critics say the bill is unnecessary since those protections already exist. And it has no chance of passing the Democratic-led Senate or being signed into law by President Joe Biden.
But that wasn’t really the point. The bill – and, more importantly, the accompanying floor vote – were part of a larger messaging strategy: put Democrats on the record regarding an issue Republicans believe is a winner on the campaign trail.
This kind of long-shot legislation has a name: messaging bills which aim to convince voters one side is working to address issues of importance while the other is standing against them, experts told USA TODAY.
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Notable lawmakers to know: McCarthy, Schumer and other leaders of the 118th Congress in 2023
What is a messaging bill?
A messaging bill, which can be on any topic, has almost no likelihood of passing both chambers and becoming law, but helps shape debates and perceptions about a political party.
“There are numerous reasons why you would do it – one is to convey to your party’s base voters that this is what you’re for, this is what you’re going to try to do if you get the chance,” said Frances Lee, a professor of politics and public affairs at Princeton University.
Lee, who wrote “Insecure Majorities” about congressional party conflict, said messaging bills put lawmakers on the record in ways that can be used for fundraising and campaigning for the next election.
Gregory Wawro, a political science professor at Columbia University, said messaging bills are used to promote one party at the expense of the other and without any real intent to change policy.
“It’s more about the strategy of creating a favorable party label for yourself and a negative party label for your opponents,” he said.
Who introduces messaging legislation?
Both sides of the aisle have introduced messaging legislation in each Congress dating back decades.
“One of my biggest criticisms of Democratic leadership is the unrelenting frequency with which they offer messaging bills for debate on the House floor instead of substantive legislation,” South Carolina GOP Rep. William Timmons said in 2019 in response to Democrats adding provisions – one preventing partners or spouses from owning a gun if convicted of domestic violence – to a bill reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act.
Republicans in the 118th Congress have already sponsored a number of messaging bills including legislation:
- To end the COVID-19 public health emergency introduced by Rep. Brett Guthrie, R-Ky.
- To rescind funding to the Internal Revenue Service proposed by Rep. Adrian Smith, R-Neb.,
- To bar federal officials from pressuring social media companies to censor speech, sponsored by Rep. James Comer, R-Ky.
Another messaging bill, the Strategic Production Response Act by Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., would limit a president’s ability to withdraw oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. The bill was filed after Republicans accused Biden last fall of misusing his authority to lower gas prices ahead of the midterm elections.
It passed in the House, but – like other messaging legislation – lacks the votes to pass in the Democratic-controlled Senate. Biden has threatened to veto it.
Lee anticipates similar moves from Republicans on the debt ceiling and deficit where GOP lawmakers hope to put Democrats on the defensive over spending.
Some Republicans aren’t big fans of the messaging strategy.
“I’m not here to participate in some puppet show where we pass a bunch of messaging bills, send them to the Senate, watch them die, fail to use leverage, and don’t hold the Biden administration accountable,” Florida GOP Rep. Matt Gaetz told reporters before a vote to election Speaker Kevin McCarthy.
Why do messaging bills matter?
It’s not hard to see why messaging bills are so popular. Many lawmakers are elected from very red or very blue districts so there’s more reward playing to the base rather than moderates. A Roll Call analysis found that only around 20% of House districts are competitive.
Messaging bills are a way of pushing ideas and priorities important to the partisan edges of the electorate – the folks who consistently vote in the primaries – as well as raise money from them.
“It’s a way of saying we’re trying – we’re trying to do what you want and we’re being responsive as best we can in a very frustrating environment,” Lee said.
Even the titles of the bills– the Inflation Reduction Act, the Family and Small Business Taxpayer Protection Act – convey wholesome themes to win voter approval even if the legislation is far more complicated than its name implies.
“In the era of the election cycle ends and the new one begins immediately the day after, messaging is just intended to promote your own party,” Wawro said.
Story Credit: usatoday.com