Inside the Capitol

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Hobson's Choice

SANTA FE How can political candidates cast so many horrible votes on issues dear to our hearts when they know it will damage their political careers?
How could people like U.S. Reps. Heather Wilson and Steve Pearce, with distinguished military service, cast votes that hurt our armed forces? And how could Richard Romero, a career educator, cast votes detrimental to our education system?
The answer is they really didn’t have a choice. Their predicament is commonly referred to as “Hobson’s Choice,” which really isn’t a choice at all.
Thomas Hobson was a 17th century English liveryman, who required every customer to take the horse nearest the door. The term has come to mean a situation in which a person with an apparently free choice actually has no alternative.
If every piece of legislation coming before Congress or a state legislature dealt with only one narrow issue, there would be no problem. But that’s not the way it works. The New Mexico Legislature requires that bills deal with only one subject. But within one subject can be many issues.
In Congress, its wide open. Omnibus bills deal with a variety of subjects. And then there is the favorite practice of tacking unrelated riders on a bill that is sure to pass. Those riders often are bills that already have failed or have never been debated. So members of Congress are faced with having to weigh the merits against the demerits of a great many bills before them.
That means the next time they run for office, their challengers can comb through their many votes and pick out distasteful features of otherwise meritorious bills. It is called opposition research and it has become quite a specialty in the political world.
A case in point took place in Congress last week. A bill authorizing the Pentagon to initiate another round of controversial military base closures was being pushed by the House leadership in order to avoid a pre-election showdown with President Bush over the issue. Many members of Congress had promised their constituents they would stall the process as much as they could lest a base in their district be closed.
But the bill also authorized an increase of 20,000 troops for the Army, 3,000 for the Marines, a pay hike for the troops and more body armor. With all the recent fuss on those issues, there wasn’t any choice but to let the Defense Department go ahead with preparing its list of recommend closures and realignments.
From listening to the ads on television, you may think you have little choice between equally distasteful candidates. But the next time you hear of a candidate casting some very suspicious votes, stop and think of whether they might have been faced with a Hobson’s choice.
Here in New Mexico, our battleground state status continues to attract presidential candidates like flypaper. President George Bush and Sen. John Kerry were both in New Mexico on Monday. Kerry stayed in Santa Fe another day to prepare for Wednesday’s debate.
President Bush has given quite a thrill to southern New Mexico with his many visits to towns that never have seen a presidential candidate before, much less a sitting president. The communities, such as Hobbs, probably already are firmly in his column, but the president is certainly energizing his base.
New Mexico isn’t new to hosting presidential candidates who want to escape for some quiet time to prepare for a debate. President Bill Clinton spent a few days in Albuquerque in 1996 to do a little prep work and play a lot of golf.
President Bush also escaped to Santa Fe a year or so ago, completely for a vacation at an old chum’s house in the Las Campanas gated community northwest of Santa Fe. He played two rounds of golf and drew some squawks from club members who had their reservations cancelled for security reasons.


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