One of the first things that I became aware of when I interviewed House members was that Republicans are quite angry about the procedural rules being employed by Speaker Nancy Pelosi to control floor debate. This is rather arcane stuff, and my understanding of it is imperfect, but I will endeavor to explain the Republicans’ concerns. I had interviews with Pete Sessions, a member of the Rules Committee, and Joe Barton, the former chairman, now ranking member, of the Energy and Commerce committee. Their observations were similar: The committee process is being bypassed and the rules are being used to bring bills to the floor in a way that effectively prevents the minority party from offering alternatives and getting votes on their proposals.
The regular procedure for debating bills is that the Rules Committee, which is dominated by the majority party, sets the rules for debate. An “open rule” allows amendments. A “closed rule” prohibits amendments. The rules committee may also allow certain amendments to be offered and prohibit others. Thus the majority can control the debate. I recall a situation some years ago when a coalition of conservative Democrats and Republicans were working on a compromise minimum wage bill, but the Democratic Rules Committee adopted a rule that said that an amendment could only be offered by the minority leader. This rule effectively tied the hands of the conservative Democrats and killed any chance of a compromise.
The only procedural recourse for the minority (other than attempting to vote down the rule, which occasionally works) is a motion to recommit–to send the bill back to committee. The motion to recommit can include amendments favored by the minority. The motion to recommit is protected in the House Rules; the Rules Committee may not adopt a rule prohibiting a motion to recommit. This tactic works occasionally, when the majority is split, as the Democrats are on energy, with conservative Democrats siding with the Republicans in favor of more drilling. However, this is not the process that is being used to conduct business in the House today. Instead, the Rules Committee authorizes a motion to suspend the rules. This requires a 2/3 vote. Rules suspensions are typically used for bipartisan or noncontroversial legislation–say, naming a post office, or offering the congratulations of the House.
The Democrats are utilizing rules suspensions for major legislation. The National Journal’s “Congressional DailyAM” calls it an “expedited procedure.” Once the debate is conducted under a motion to suspend the rules, the rules preclude amendments, substitutes, or a motion to recommit. The first thing I asked when I heard about this from Sessions and Barton is why are the Democrats are doing this, since they are several dozen seats short of the two-thirds majority necessary to suspend the rules. To hear the Republicans tell it, the Democrats have to address major issues–energy, for example–but, “They fear the Republican alternative,” as Barton put it. There are enough “energy Democrats” from oil-, gas-, and coal-producing states (Houston congressman Gene Green is their leader) that if the Republicans could make a motion to recommit coupled with an amendment to open up offshore drilling, they might win, to the immense embarrassment of the Democratic leadership.
The appropriations process is also caught up in the rules issue. Appropriations bills traditionally come to the floor with an open rule, but Appropriations chairman David Obey has “shut the appropriations process down,” Barton says. On my second day in Washington, Congress DailyAM carried a story that began:
“House Appropriations Chairman David Obey said Wednesday [July 16] he has not completely shut the door on the appropriations process, but declined to say which, or how many, of the 12 annual spending bills for FY09 he plans to complete. ‘I know which bills I would like to proceed with because I know which bills the White House would squawk the most about if we don’t get them done, but I am not about to advertiswe that because it gives away my cards,’ Obey said….”
Democrats believe that going through the full process is futile because President Bush has already vowed to veto any bill that spends more than his budget recommendations. Obey only wants to get the spending bills through the various Appropriations subcommittees, because, he says, Republicans will offer a large number of amendments in the full committee that would essentially filibuster the bills at the committee level.
Democrats will probably resort to continuing resolutions to fund the federal government. Republicans will not be able to offer amendments or motions to recommit. What the Democrats want, as Republicans see it, is to be able to use the process to avoid any tough votes before the election, prevent President Bush from wielding his veto pen, and delay the budget until after the next president (whom, of course, they hope will be Barack Obama) takes office.
How do the Democrats get anything done? “The answer is, they’re not,” Barton said. There is plenty of debate, but no action. The D’s control the process and are able to present popular proposals. The Republicans can attack them, but the suspension process prevents them from offering alternatives that can be voted on.
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The Democrats had their gripes when the Republicans were in power. They complained, for example, that Tom DeLay held votes open too long while he threatened and cajoled recalcitrant members. But the R’s at least allowed the Democrats to have their say. I side with them 100% on their criticism of the Democrats’ procedure. It is wrong to use the rules to prevent the minority from offering alternatives. That is the only arrow in the minority’s quiver. They can’t win, but they shouldn’t be silenced. The larger picture, though, is that there is no real debate in the U.S. House. The rules require that all remarks must be addressed to the speaker. The Texas House of Representative is a true battleground. A member can stand at the back microphone and question the author of a bill. The author is held accountable. In Washington, there is no debate, no one-on-one, even in committee. Everything is contrived in a back room. For democracy in action, the process in the Texas House is far better than that of Congress.