Senators borrow a page from the junior varsity playbook

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Print this page by Robert Powell
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Sen. Jon Tester of Montana points out the handwritten changes
in the Senate tax reform bill. Photo courtesy YouTube

Lawmaking has been compared to making sausages.

The squeamish “should never watch either one being made,” goes the saying often attributed to Otto von Bismarck, the first chancellor of the German Empire.

Nonetheless, the recent midnight wrangling seen in passing a Senate tax reform bill brought another comparison to mind: The senators looked like they were making up plays in the middle of a football game.

In the hours leading up to the vote, Republican leaders scrambled to make changes to the bill to appease various factions and maintain their majority. The result was a 479-page document with handwritten edits in the margins.

In a video, Democratic Sen. Jon Tester of Montana showed off a page filled with nearly indecipherable scribbling. “This is Washington, D.C., at its worst,” he wrote on Twitter.

While the senator was trying to generate outrage, I had a different reaction. The sight of the hastily doctored bill made me nostalgic. “This looks like something Mr. Burch would do,” I thought.
Mr. Burch was the late Bruce Burch, a much-beloved history teacher and coach at Darlington School, my high school in Georgia. 

As track coach, Burch ceaselessly recruited talent. He was known to chase down and sign up students he spotted sprinting to class.

Burch also welcomed all comers to compete in the high jump. On spring afternoons, a succession of students would attempt jumps, raising the bar each time they succeeded. At the end of the day, Burch often would make a few jumps himself, easily clearing the bar at a much higher level.

Burch was equally creative as a football coach. For many years, he led the school junior varsity team, which often was more successful (and had more fun) than the varsity team. He loved to make up new plays and adapt ones used by other coaches.

Bill Kelly, my classmate and food friend, was the JV quarterback in 1968. His first inkling of things to come during the season was Burch’s playbook. It was two inches thick.

Bill once was in study hall on game day when Burch sat down next to him with a new copy of Sports Illustrated. The coach eagerly showed Bill a story about the Veer, a new-fangled offense developed at the University of Houston. “We’re going to use this today in the game,” Burch told Bill. “I’m going to call it the Zoom.”

The Veer is the granddaddy of today’s triple-option plays. Keying off the reaction of opposing players, the quarterback has three choices: keeping the ball, handing it off to a running back or pitching it to another player.

Most of the JV players had never heard of the Veer. Nonetheless, they attempted Burch’s Zoom in that day’s game — and scored a touchdown. “I think we were the first team east of the Mississippi River ever to run the triple option,” says Bill, who today is a retired Southwest Airlines pilot.

Burch set another football precedent when he came up with a new play in the middle of a game. Into the huddle came a player clutching 11 sheets of paper. They were mimeographed copies of a play. You could still smell the ink on them. The players weren’t sure if they were preparing to run a play or take a test.

Unlike the triple-option play, the result of that play has been forgotten. Also forgotten is what was done with all of that paper. “We likely  stuffed them into our pants,” Bill says. The referees probably would have penalized the team for littering the field they had been able to figure out what rule had been broken.

However, I do remember that some years later Xerox came up with a TV commercial that played off the same idea (it’s still available on YouTube). A football team having a miserable game suddenly gets photocopies of a new play from the coach. The pass receiver runs his pattern while staring at the piece of paper in his hand. He finds where he is supposed to be and looks up to catch the ball. Touchdown! Creative minds think alike.

So, the Republican senators aren’t the first to attempt rewriting the playbook at the last minute, but they need to up their game. With all of its handwritten changes, the Senate tax reform bill didn’t look much like the Zoom. It was more of a Hail Mary.

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