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Kennedy’s unintended role in history

01:00 AM EDT on Thursday, October 2, 2008


Journal Washington Bureau


WASHINGTON — When future scholars dig into the remains of the Great Market Rescue of 2008, assuming Congress ultimately approves the measure, they may puzzle over a curious aspect of its pedigree.

The lead author listed on the bill was not the chairman of a major financial committee, nor the Treasury secretary, nor the president. It was Patrick J. Kennedy, Democratic representative from the First Congressional District of Rhode Island.

To be sure, Kennedy’s sponsorship of the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 is misleading. Kennedy has not been among the negotiators of the $700-billion rescue package that the Senate approved last night.

So why does his name appear on the legislation?

In part, it has to do with the U.S. Constitution. Article 7, Section 1 says tax bills must originate in the House of Representatives.

In order to improve chances that the bailout bill, which the House defeated on Monday, would be approved this time around, the Senate tacked on several popular provisions, such as extending the life of business tax cuts that were set to expire and changing the alternative minimum tax, a much-loathed part of the tax code intended to ensure that the well-to-do pay their fair share but that in recent years has increasingly affected the middle class.

And an element of the tax package was legislation advanced by Kennedy that requires health-insurance companies to offer coverage of mental illness on a par with that of physical illness.

Once the Senate added those provisions to the rescue bill, it qualified as a tax bill, which the upper chamber is constitutionally prohibited from originating.

In order to get around the Constitution, the leaders turned to the time-honored stratagem of finding a live but dormant House bill — Kennedy’s mental-health parity bill — to use as a shell.

“They take out the entire text” of Kennedy’s old bill, “and then, by amendment, they substitute the other bill,” said Don Ritchie, an assistant Senate historian. Two bills, in this instance: the emergency rescue bill and the tax provisions and the final version of Kennedy’s mental-health parity wrapped inside.

And that is how Kennedy of Rhode Island became the original lead sponsor — in name only — of one of the most hard-fought financial bills in congressional history.