Don’t get the ‘sugar-coated Satan sandwich’ debt ceiling game? Politicians love it

Last Tuesday, the U.S. House passed a bill dealing with “behavioral health and well-being among health care professionals,” which certainly sounds like an important topic. The bill was named for Lorna Breen, a physician who committed suicide in the face of the COVID-19 onslaught.

Except, of course, the bill actually had nothing to do with her, or the mental health of doctors and nurses. Instead, the House stripped all the original language out of the bill and inserted unrelated material, a procedure Kansas lawmakers call “gut and go.”


The new bill makes several changes to Medicare spending. Oh, it also sets up a convoluted procedure for the Senate, and therefore the government, to approve an increase in the nation’s debt ceiling.

It passed, barely. It’s on its way across the Capitol to the Senate.

The hypocrisy surrounding debt ceiling votes has been obvious to all for decades. In Missouri and Kansas, Republicans and Democrats who have been around long enough have voted for debt ceiling hikes, and against them, repeatedly and without shame.

Ten years ago, Rep. Emanuel Cleaver called a debt ceiling bill a “sugar-coated Satan sandwich.” Others have even more colorful descriptions.

Those votes have nothing to do with the wisdom of approving an increase in federal borrowing. They’re designed to embarrass the other party, or the president, or both. It’s a horrible way to run a government, or to pay the nation’s bills.

But let’s leave that aside for a moment. What is a debt ceiling procedure doing in a bill that deals with Medicare? Or that might have addressed the unrelenting pressure on health care providers?

Of all the practices of our national legislature, the tactic of cramming unrelated subjects into so-called “must-pass” bills is the most pernicious, and common. It needs to stop.

Piling different bills into one huge measure confuses voters, which is part of the point. It makes it almost impossible for regular people to decipher congressional decisions. That makes the practice bad enough.

But it’s worse than that, because massive catchall bills allow members of Congress to deflect any responsibility for their choices. Members of the House and Senate can, and do, take credit for the things in bills they think voters want, and disclaim parts of bills they don’t like, without penalty or scrutiny.

The result is an incomprehensible muddle, where good ideas fail and bad ideas are embedded in thousand-page monstrosities only pizza-fueled congressional aides can understand.

This isn’t a Republican or Democratic problem. Both parties do it. You may be for President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better plan, or against it, but you’d likely agree Congress should consider its proposals one at a time, so everyone understands what they’re voting on.

Fat chance. The proposals are linked, so everything passes, or nothing does. What a mess.

Acres of newsprint and millions of pixels have been used to explain the dysfunction of Congress — gerrymanders, maybe, or the rise of outside spending. Filibusters. The government is too big. Members aren’t friends anymore.

All are reasonable explanations. But the common practice of stuffing everything into one bill, which grows worse by the month, is on the list, too.

— The Kansas City Star

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