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Supplemental Vote Was an Early Warning for House Democrats

Let us give kudos to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) and Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) for their tough-minded and masterful job getting to 218 on the supplemental appropriations bill. It was tough sledding every step of the way. Now the bad news: How could it have been tough sledding all the way? What is wrong with Democrats in the House that so many could not see the awful consequences of a defeat for their Speaker and their party on the floor at this stage of their new majority? [IMGCAP(1)]

This is nothing new, of course. When Will Rogers in the 1920s uttered his famous line, “I am not a member of any organized party … I am a Democrat,” it reflected the long-standing view of the Democratic Party as undisciplined. That was true during the early 1990s, when Democrats, with comfortable majorities in both houses, took months to muster the votes for President Bill Clinton’s budget plan, nearly scuttled his crime bill and then helped kill his health care initiative — and on the way lost their majorities for the first time in 40 years because they could not get things done.

In Clinton’s first two years, one might attribute the failures to an arrogance and obtuseness that come with perpetual majorities; Democrats acted however they wished, no matter the president, because they could not foresee any negative consequences at the polls. Another reason was the size of their majorities; the larger the cushion, the harder it is to convince any individual that his or her vote will make all the difference.

But what are the excuses now? Surely, Democrats in the House realize what happened to them in 1994; surely, they know that they now operate on thin ice with a margin of 15; surely, they know that they got elected to the majority by voters who wanted to replace a “do-nothing” Congress with a “do-something” Congress.

It should not take an advanced degree in political science or a lifetime of political experience to know that if this vote had failed, the reverberations would have been immense and long-lasting. Nor should it have taken much experience in a legislature to know that if the vote did fail, the only alternative would have been to give the president what he wanted with no strings attached, a much worse outcome.

In fact, experience was not the issue; all the freshmen understood these facts. It was far more senior Members, including several members of the party’s Whip operation, who put their thumbs in the Speaker’s eye and who spent days and weeks actively lobbying against their own party’s leaders. This may reflect major dollops on their part of naiveté, self-centeredness and immaturity. It may reflect the same qualities in the left-wing activist blogosphere that organized anti-war demonstrations at Rep. Ellen Tauscher’s (D) district office in California despite her open and vigorous opposition to the troop “surge.” Whatever the causes, it suggests that Pelosi will have her work cut out for her for the remainder of the 110th Congress.

Unfortunately, it has other troubling implications. The most disturbing development for me came when Hoyer told reporters that he could not rule out keeping the 15-minute vote on the supplemental open for at least a half-hour if his party could not get the majority it needed. No issue is more emblematic of the broken branch over the past several years than the abuse of the vote time, with exhibit A, of course, being the outrageous three-hour vote on the Medicare prescription drug bill. Democrats rightly railed against this abuse of norms and rejection of the regular order. Even to consider extending the vote beyond a minute or two (routinely done for stragglers) was shocking. Nothing could ratchet up the cynicism of voters about politicians more than if Democrats turn around and blithely flout the regular order by refusing to accept the results on the floor when time expires. If Democrats now embrace an “ends justify the means” mentality, we will never get back a legitimate, vibrant and honest legislative process. Thank goodness the leaders got their votes in order before the bill hit the floor. I shudder to think of the consequences if they had not.

Before Republicans get gleeful, they should consider another reality: A minority party deserves the right to be heard and to have alternatives considered, but with those rights come responsibilities. If the minority uses the opportunity to offer amendments to exploit cynically the opening for political purposes —through “gotcha” amendments designed to foster 30-second attack ads against vulnerable majority lawmakers, or through poison-pill alternatives designed only to scuttle a bill, not to offer a real alternative — it soon will lose its moral high ground for objecting to majority restrictions on debate and amendments.

The best recent example was Rep. Lamar Smith’s (R-Texas) motion to recommit with instructions on the Washington, D.C./Utah House expansion bill. There were many reasonable objections Republicans might have had to that bill, including a fear that it would be the opening wedge in an attempt to give voting seats to other delegates or to add two Senate seats for the District of Columbia, or the requirement that the new Utah seat be at-large until the next reapportionment. Any or all of these could have been put into the motion to recommit. Instead, Smith chose an extraneous issue, the D.C. gun law, clearly to act as a poison pill to kill the bill or force Blue Dog Democrats into uncomfortable votes to prepare for attack ads in 2008. That was not a responsible act or alternative, and will mean that the bill will be brought back to the floor stripped of a motion to recommit with instructions. Republicans will no doubt scream “hypocrisy,” but in this case they have no one to blame but themselves.

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

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