It wasn't long ago that lawmakers heeded the advice of culinary master Julia Child when finessing a big, controversial bill to passage on Capitol Hill.
"Always start out with a larger pot than what you think you need," Child said.
Child's dictum holds equal application in the kitchen and in the halls of Congress. An ambitious chef is always dumping in different ingredients and needing all the room possible to stir everything together so the dish tastes a certain way. A legislative gourmet often adds a dash of a policy provision here or seasons bill with herbs and spices so the final piece of legislation tastes a particular way, too.
Earmarks were the preferred garnish in Washington for many years. But after an intense public outcry, lawmakers from both parties went Charles Barkley on everyone and got hooked on a Congressional diet worthy of Weight Watchers. They cut out the fat in bills by eliminating earmarks. In fact President Obama even declared that he would not sign into law any bill which contained earmarks.
So it was no surprise a few weeks ago when House Transportation Committee Chairman John Mica (R-FL) rolled out what was his five-year, $260 billion highway and infrastructure bill, sans earmarks.
A highway bill without earmarks is a foreign concept in Washington. Kind of like the NBA All-Star game with defense. Or Callista Gingrich without Aqua Net.
The Heritage Foundation says transportation bills had a little more than a handful of earmarks in them in the early 1980s. That figure ballooned to more than 6,300 by 2005. The total number of earmarks skyrocketed to 14,000 in all legislation across the board. But Mica devised a transportation bill that adhered to the no-earmark orthodoxy that now prevails in Washington.
"Do any of you have any idea how difficult it is to do a transportation bill without earmarks?" Mica asked at a news conference where he unveiled the package in January.
One lawmaker who knows something about fricasseeing a piece of legislation with earmarks is Rep. Don Young (R-AK). Young used to chair the House Transportation panel. Treasury watchdogs of all political persuasions sometimes derided Young's stewardship of that committee because of the explosion of earmarks. The poster child for purported earmarking abuse was Young's legendary "Bridge to Nowhere." That's where Young scored $223 million for the Gravina Island Bridge that spanned from Ketchikan to Gravina Island, AK in 2005.
But Young's on board with lo-cal legislation. And it was critical for Mica to stage-manage the news conference where he introduced the bill in such a way so that Young would stand directly behind him.
"I'm supporting this bill," said Young. "It's difficult for me not to have earmarks."
But Young wasn't the only Republican lawmaker to speak at Mica's press conference. Soon came a cavalcade of freshman Republicans. And nearly all of them took a whack at earmarks.
"I'm really excited about this bill," remarked Rep. Bob Gibbs (R-OH). "First of all, no earmarks!"
"One of the big things I want to make sure everybody takes away (is that) there are no earmarks in this bill," said Rep. Chip Cravaack (R-MN).
Young muttered something under his breath to veteran Rep. Tom Petri (R-WI).
"We have a problem in this town. It was called earmarking" declared Rep. Chuck Fleischmann (R-TN). "There are no earmarks in this bill. When I ran, I promised there'd be no more earmarks. This bill gets that done."
Young rolled his eyes, quickly tiring of the piling on about earmarks
"Fat gives things flavor." - Julia Child
House Republicans aimed to bring the transportation and infrastructure legislation to the House floor last week. But it wasn't long before they ran into an across the board revolt from all sectors of the House GOP Conference. Politico reported that House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) told Republicans behind closed doors there was more support for raising the debt ceiling than for the transportation bill. In fact House Republican leaders filleted the legislation into threes in hopes of at least preserving the energy component of the package. That sector of the bill includes a provision to expedite construction of the Keystone pipeline.
Regardless, the transportation bill faced a legion of problems which didn't break down along party or ideological lines. Democrats complained about safety issues in the measure. Conservatives groused about the payfors. Rep. Steve Southerland (R-FL) expressed reservations about how one of the payfors interfered with military bases in northern Florida. Rep. Dennis Ross (R-FL) voiced his opposition about how the contributions of federal workers to their pension programs could be used to offset highway funding.
The divides were so deep that Republicans told lawmakers they couldn't finish the bill last week. And now, House GOP leaders are restructuring the bill altogether.
"There are enough poison pills in it to allow someone to commit suicide," quipped Rep. Nick Rahall (D-WV), the top Democrat on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
And yet many lawmakers from both parties agreed they could whip up this soufflé if they could add a solitary ingredient: earmarks.
"The ban on earmarks was positive for integrity," said Southerland. "But it has made things more difficult."
To be clear, Southerland isn't calling for earmarks to help pass the bill. And almost no Democrats or Republicans are willing to undo the earmark moratorium. But they understand how earmarks once brought stubborn legislative pots to a boil in the Congressional mess.
"It's harder to pass a bill without earmarks. That's no question," lamented Rep. Norm Dicks (D-WA), the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, the panel that crafted a substantial number of earmarks. Dicks said it was always easier for Congressional leaders to dump specific earmarks into bills, designed exclusively to court lawmakers who were otherwise dubious about voting yea. That often lured a dithering lawmaker to vote in favor of the measure in question, even if he or she didn't back the rest of the bill.
"If you can't pass a bill without (earmarks), it must not be a very good bill," observed Rep. Tom Graves (R-GA).
For his part, John Mica likened the old practice to extortion.
"The chairman and the ranking member got so much discretionary money where you could buy off the members. And after that, you never heard another peep," said Mica.
The Florida Republican believes the no-earmark approach is a better way to operate in Congress, despite the snag his bill hit last week.
"People aren't being bought off for projects. We're actually making policy," Mica said.
"It's so beautifully arranged on the plate - you know someone's fingers have been all over it." - Julia Child
The transportation bill is especially important to House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH). In fact, the speaker is almost waging a philosophical battle to move Congress away from the horse-trading of old and persuading lawmakers to vote yes or no based on the merits of the legislation instead of scamming the system for pork.
Boehner's often spelled out the reasons why a sophisticated transportation system is essential to move goods and services to boost the economy. In addition, Boehner has never crafted a single earmark during his two decades in Congress. The Ohio Republican noted recently that he's never supported a major transportation bill because most were laden with pork. So as Speaker of the House, Boehner has a lot to gain by showing that the House can engineer an earmark-free transportation bill. By the same token, Boehner has a lot to lose if Republicans can't steer this bill to passage without doing things "the old way." The House is now rethinking the transportation measure. Earmarks are certainly out of the question. But House Republicans are now on the parliamentary equivalent of Butterball's Turkey Talk Line to salvage this bird. Otherwise, Gordon Ramsay might materialize and declare this effort worthy of his show Kitchen Nightmares.
In her tour de force tome "Mastering the Art of French Cooking," Julia Child wrote that talented chefs know that a good recipe is not enough to make a dish tasty. Child writes that chefs must take special care in selecting the right ingredients, having the proper cooking utensils and executing various technical processes just right. That includes sautéing "a piece of meat so that it browns without losing its juices" and "where to put the tart in the oven so it will puff and brown."
Child says striking this balance is crucial. Otherwise, a meal won't amount to much.
"A perfect navarin of lamb, for instance, requires a number of operations including brownings, simmerings, strainings, and flavorings. Each of the several steps in the process, though simple to accomplish, plays a critical role, and if any is eliminated or combined with another, the texture and taste of the navarin suffer," Child writes. "Precision in small details can make the difference between passable cooking and fine food. If a recipe says, 'cover casserole and regulate heat to subside,' or 'beat the hot sauce into the egg yolks by driblets,' follow it."
So now House GOP leaders are donning their aprons and sweating over a hot stove to rescue the transportation bill.
"It will be done. It will pass. And then I'll say amen and Kumbaya," said Mica.
Child wrote that "the best way to execute French cooking is to get good and loaded and whack the hell out of a chicken." That may have been how they used to do things on Capitol Hill. The Congressional palate was a lot less sophisticated when earmarks were the only sweetener required to lend some zip to a warmed-over dish.
Congressional tastes are now more discriminating. The question today is how legislative culinarians alter the recipe for a tasty transportation bill. They'll have to swap out ingredients. Select the proper batterie de cuisine with which to cook. And then they'll have to brown, simmer or strain everything in such a way to concoct a legislative dish so succulent that no one could resist voting against it.