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GOP’s Approach to Continuity: Not Just Unfortunate. Stupid.

The bad news? Yet another continuity column. The good news? This is not really about continuity. It is about process — about the way the Republicans in the House are treating important issues. I promise not to rehash the old arguments about the substance of the continuity of government proposals here. I just want to talk about how the treatment of this issue reflects a mind-set about how to govern. This mind-set is worse than unfortunate. It is stupid and ultimately counterproductive. And there is no good reason for it. [IMGCAP(1)]

The day the House voted on the constitutional amendment, sponsored by Rep. Brian Baird (D-Wash.), that would have allowed emergency interim appointments in the event of a catastrophic attack that killed or incapacitated large numbers of Members of Congress, Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), who chairs the Judiciary Committee, and Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.), who chairs the Rules Committee, published an op-ed piece in The Washington Post that defended their approach. They emphasized how serious the House has been since 9/11 about the problem of continuity, and they congratulated themselves on the bipartisan nature of their efforts.

Yeah, right. It would have been easy for them to validate the message of their op-ed by making last Wednesday’s debate and vote open, nonpartisan and deliberative. That, I believe, was the goal of Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) when he convinced Sensenbrenner to bring a constitutional amendment up for a vote. Several interesting and creative alternative amendments are circulating out there, offering a variety of approaches to the continuity problem, sponsored by such House Democrats as Baird, John Larson (Conn.) and Zoe Lofgren (Calif.) and from Republicans such as Dana Rohrabacher (Calif.).

None of their measures was expected to gather the two-thirds vote necessary to pass the House, but a real debate, for a full day or so, about the alternatives would have been educational for the nation and for the majority of Members of the House who have not thought about this issue for more than five minutes. Equally important, such a debate would have been a balm on the open wound that is the House these days.

Instead — almost inexplicably — there was a closed rule. It was one vote, one amendment, and an amendment which the author himself admitted has flaws. And debate was limited to 90 minutes. Dreier, as a minority member of the Rules Committee, argued regularly and eloquently against the use of closed rules by Democrats, and he swore things would be different under a Republican majority.

Well, they have been different: There are more closed rules than ever. Dreier has said that, as a minority member, he didn’t understand the difficulty of governing from the majority, and that doing so is far harder with the narrow majorities Republicans have had in the past two Congresses. He has a point: There are issues, from fiscal to foreign policy, in which the majority needs to constrain choices if it is to prevail. And there are amendments designed more to structure 30-second campaign commercials than to offer constructive changes or genuine alternatives.

But the amendments on continuity were different altogether: They were all legitimate and honest. To force this issue to come up under a closed rule was an insult to Democrats, and to Rohrabacher. It was utterly unnecessary. Why do it? It is more than sheer partisanship; it is sheer power. The Republican leadership did it because they could, and they knew they could hold their own troops on a procedural vote.

Most news stories on the floor vote mentioned only the vote on final passage, which was lopsided. The real story, as reported in Roll Call, was the near party-line voting on the rule and on the motion to recommit — a motion in which Baird himself led the way, arguing for more time to debate this important issue.

Of course, the closed rule and the floor debate only added insult to injury. The rule had been preceded by a “markup” of the amendment in the House Judiciary Committee, undertaken in one afternoon along with a slew of unrelated bills. There was no debate, and Chairman Sensenbrenner refused to discuss alternatives, including one by Lofgren.

Sensenbrenner even refused to let Brian Baird speak on his amendment’s behalf — the kind of common courtesy that used to be, well, common in the House. Though a number of Democrats share Sensenbrenner’s misgivings about a constitutional amendment, that issue melted away, as Democrats united in outrage against the chairman’s bullying tactics.

All told, the House’s history on continuity is a sorry one. Except for Brian Baird, the initial reaction of the House to this problem was indifference, denial or both. Baird and I — in my capacity as senior counselor to the Continuity of Government Commission, a private-sector panel — sought to engage the Speaker and other leaders, but we got nowhere. The word from the Speaker’s office was that he would address the issue when the Members demanded it. That’s leadership? Months later, after a lot of outside pounding, the House did create a working group — a good one, led by the capable and thoughtful Christopher Cox (R-Calif.) and Martin Frost (D-Texas) and with a number of other smart and strong Members.

But it was clear from the outset that the mandate for this working group was to examine all ideas short of considering a constitutional amendment. That would have been perfectly understandable, even commendable, if the marching orders from the Speaker had been, “Try first to solve this problem without resorting to the nuclear weapon of solutions. If that is not possible, recommend what is necessary.” Instead, it was clear from the get-go that a constitutional amendment, under any circumstances, was out of bounds. After the 107th Congress, in any event, the working group was effectively disbanded when Cox became chairman of the Homeland Security Committee.

After additional outside pounding, the House Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution held one hearing chaired by Steve Chabot (R-Ohio) — a brief morning session — on constitutional alternatives to the continuity problem. I was one of four witnesses. Afterwards, as I mingled with the subcommittee members, it became clear that the marching orders to the subcommittee chairman from the committee chairman — Mr. Sensenbrenner — were to hold one hearing. Period.

Every day we get reminders about the real threat to the Capitol from vicious terrorists. The issue of ensuring a continuing Congress should have been the subject of vigorous debate from the early stages after 9/11. It is a complicated problem, and it takes time and effort for Members to get their minds around it. Far more of them should be engaged now. There was a real opportunity to do that last week, at no real cost to the leaders and their colleagues who oppose a constitutional amendment. They could have looked magnanimous and thoughtful, not spiteful and vindictive.

Of all the issues out there, this one should be the least partisan. There was no earthly reason for the Judiciary Committee to vote on strictly partisan lines on the Sensenbrenner alternative, or on the constitutional amendment. There was no reason for the House to split on partisan lines on the rule and on the motion to recommit, no reason to limit the debate to a pathetic 90 minutes, no reason to slap Dana Rohrabacher, Zoe Lofgren and John Larson in the face. It is the middle-finger approach to governing, driven by a mind-set that has brought us the most rancorous and partisan atmosphere I have seen in the House in nearly 35 years. Eventually, it is going to tick off more than a few Republicans along the way — and that’s something the leadership might regret if their margin of majority shrinks significantly in November.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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