[The big story got me looking into one of Tom DeLay's trademarks...]
Catch and release, named after the fishing term "catch and release," is a term used to describe a political strategy by which members of the United States Congress can affect an appearance of political independence. Critics suggest that the practice enables members, usually nominal moderates, to escape accountability for supporting legislation backed by their party but unpopular in their districts.
In catch and release, legislators are pressured by their party's leadership into agreeing to vote for a bill that is unpopular in their districts, but are then released to vote as they please if the bill will pass without their vote. The member of Congress can tell his or her constituents that he or she broke with party leadership on that issue, when Senator or Representative actually would have supported the leadership if it had been necessary for passage.
Case Study: Christopher Shays and MTBE
Catch and release is difficult to pinpoint due to the fact that it takes place behind closed doors, however, it can be seen when Congressmen break with their previous voting patterns in close votes and in the ways Congressmen vote on adding amendments to bills.
Christopher Shays is a Republican Congressman from Connecticut representing Fairfield County. He has a history of representing himself as an environmentalist to his suburban constituents. In 2005 the Republican leadership added a provision to an energy bill that would exempt the makers of the gasoline additive MTBE from lawsuits over groundwater pollution. Since MTBE had been highly used in the Northeast, it was the Northeast that was the venue for these lawsuits.
In voting on MTBE most Northeastern Republicans opposed exemption, as did virtually the whole Democratic caucus. Shays voted with the Republican leadership on the extremely tight vote on inserting the MTBE provision. While the MTBE vote was close, the overall bill had enough support to pass without Shays' vote and Shays was allowed to vote against the bill without threat of punishment, which he did.