This, too, shall pass

ONCE THEY got the preliminaries out of the way -- the minimum wage, the gas tax -- the Senate was really able to get down to the people's business.

The parking meters, for instance.


This was back in the spring of '96, when getting down to the people's business was all the Senate could think about, it being a crucial moment in the life of the nation, not to mention an election year.

Of course, back then everybody made a point of not mentioning that it was an election year. At the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, President Clinton hadn't even bothered to announce that he was running for re-election. That was the best way to be re-elected, his pollsters kept assuring him.


And on Capitol Hill, Bob Dole just planted himself on the Senate floor and did majority-leader kinds of things. Senator Dole was running for the White House, too, even if he sometimes seemed to be running in place. Without lots of money in his campaign chest, what choice did he have? On the other hand, it made things a bit unpredictable. The parking-meter amendment, for instance, caught him completely by surprise.

Focus groups

High gas prices, it seems, weren't the only thing people were upset about when they hit the road back then. Those parking meters that only took quarters were right up there, too; at least that's the way the Democrats heard it in their focus groups.

"The middle class doesn't always have quarters to throw around," said a press release from the Democratic National Committee. "Why won't Senator Dole support parking meters that also accept nickels and dimes?"

Actually, Senator Dole hadn't taken a position on the issue one way or the other, but if the Democrats were in favor of nickel-and-diming the American people, he knew he'd have to be against it. Be against it, or get something equally popular with the voters in return -- which is how his double-parked-trucks amendment made it to the floor.

"What good are flexible parking meters," Mr. Dole argued, "if hard-working American drivers can't get out of their parking spots because these giant trucks and whatever are double-parked right alongside them?" Apparently double-parked trucks were a big thing in Republican focus groups; going after them could even tip some key states into the Dole column.

But the Democrats were ready: Annoying phone calls, they said, were even more annoying than annoying trucks. So they introduced the "Family Dinner Is a Family Value" amendment -- no more mealtime interruptions from phone companies trying to get people to switch their long-distance service. President Clinton endorsed the amendment and called on Senator Dole to "put partisanship aside for once and do this thing for our fellow Americans coast to coast."

Annoying reply cards


His new momentum suddenly threatened, Senator Dole marched to the Senate TV gallery with yet another proposal. "You know what really gets people annoyed?" he said. "All those little reply cards that drop out of magazines when you open them. I call on the president to tell his friends in the liberal media, 'Enough is enough.' " And Mr. Dole said he would block a vote on the Democrats' latest amendment unless they agreed to back his "Media Elite Pollution Prevention" plan.

"There's pollution, and there's pollution," President Clinton replied that very afternoon. "What about pollution of the airwaves? How can the American people watch all the wholesome movies Senator Dole says he favors when they can't even operate their VCRs?" And the president threw his support behind the Democrats' new "Truth in Taping" amendment, which would remove the circuitry that made VCRs flash '12: 00' all the time.

They were just getting started. Fewer calories in chocolate pudding. Odor-free kitty litter. Understandable hat sizes. There were amendments on top of amendments on top of amendments -- every one of them designed to improve the lives of angry voters, and every one of them due to expire on Wednesday, November 6.

After all, this "people's business" business could only take you so far.

Rick Horowitz is a syndicated columnist. His e-mail address:

Pub Date: 5/12/96