The Death of a Good Bill (or Why America Hates the Senate)

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Republicans and Democrats agree that tourism to the U.S. is a good thing. The average foreign visitor spends $4,500 on everything from hotels and trains to Abercrombie and Fitch and Disney World. Alas, international tourism rates to the U.S. have yet to recover to pre-911 levels and they actually declined 10% in the first quarter of 2009. Enter the U.S. Senate. Senators Byron Dorgan and John Ensign and 45 cosponsors introduced legislation to tax each visitor that did not pay $131 for a U.S . visa (ie, Europe, Oceana and most developed nations) $10 upon entry to create a $200 million annual fund to promote tourism to the U.S. and educate would-be visitors about our security requirements. The bill, according to Oxford Economics, could bring in as much as $4 billion annually in new spending by international tourists. No brainer, right?

But, to the dismay of the U.S. Travel Association, the legislation last night failed the Senate. Whyl? Politics. Many senators from both sides of the aisle have been waiting weeks to attach amendments (most of them parochial) to a bill – any bill – since the war supplemental didn’t allow amendments. “This bill was the one shot before we leave” for Independence Day recess, said a GOP Senate aide. Senate Majority Leader Harry “Reid knew that and could have made a deal and given us three to five amendments and been done with it. The reality is he didn’t want to have to debate our auto stocks amendment – it makes them uncomfortable.”

Not so, said Jim Manley, a Reid senior advisor. “They wanted the right to offer non-germane amendments, mostly related to the TARP program — and we said ok,” Manley wrote in an e-mail. “But when [Vermont Senator Bernie] Sanders and [Florida Senator] Bill Nelson then asked to offer a non-germane amendment related to studying oil prices — they balked and said no and negotiations fell apart. So, despite the fact that the bill enjoys broad bipartisan support, they voted against it for procedural reasons.”

Wait a minute, that’s not fair, said Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senator Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. “I think it’s safe to say that neither side agreed to what the other wanted to accomplish,” Stewart said. 

There is no end to this game of finger pointing — they will accuse and counter accuse until they turn blue in the face. And both sides claim absolute support of the underlying measure, yet the bill failed to overcome a filibuster last night 53-24 (the Dems were hobbled by a bunch of absences). Manley said they will try to bring it back later in the summer. But over all, welcome to the Senate, ladies and gentlemen, and people wonder why nothing ever gets done.