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‘Previous Questions’ Fights Dramatize Minority’s Plight

On May 10, House Rules ranking member David Dreier (R-Calif.) concluded his remarks on a special rule for the Iraq supplemental spending bill (and two other measures) by saying, “I’m going to urge defeat of the previous question, and when we defeat that, I urge support of my quest to make the amendment in order that will allow us to prevent the president’s report [on Iraq’s military capabilities] from getting on to the Internet for our enemy to see; and, if by chance I am not successful, I urge defeat of the rule.” [IMGCAP(1)]

Rules Chairwoman Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) closed debate on the rule, saying, “Nothing we are asking the president to put on the Internet is anything but [sic] classified and who is going to believe it anyway. … I ask all of my colleagues to vote for this rule on both sides of the House. … Cleanse your conscience. Let’s do a good thing today for those people who count on us in Iraq.”

For the casual tourist in the House visitors’ gallery, debate over whether to “defeat the previous question” must have been confusing. I remember being baffled by the term when I first came to Capitol Hill and joked with fellow staffers: “How can we know what the previous question is if we don’t even know what the question is?” What may seem like a metaphysical mystery (“In the beginning was the question, but before that was the previous question.”) is, in truth, nothing more than a simple procedural query: Shall we bring the main question (a bill or resolution) to a final vote?

For those who used “Robert’s Rules of Order” in high school, the equivalent to the House term was, “I call for the question.” The vote would be on whether to bring the pending matter to a final vote, or, by defeating the motion, whether to debate the matter further.

As with much of Congress’ parliamentary procedure, the previous question motion has its origins in the English Parliament going back to 1604. Ironically, the procedure then had the opposite purpose as it does today. As explained in Asher Hinds’ “Precedents of the House of Representatives,” “the previous question had been a device for removing from consideration a question which might seem to the majority undesirable to discuss further or act upon.”

The Continental Congress adopted the British form of the rule in 1778, permitting the question to be raised by at least two Members who judged the subject or circumstances to be “improper” for debate or decision, and therefore “that the main question be not now put.”

When the first House of Representatives adopted its rule for the previous question in 1789, it reversed the Continental Congress’ rule by dropping the word “not.” So the question became: “Shall the main question be now put?” Because of considerable confusion and mixed rulings and appeals, it wasn’t until 1811 that the matter was finally settled that there could be no further debate on the main question after the previous question was adopted. (The Senate eliminated the previous question motion in 1806, thereby paving the way for the filibuster.)

Today big fights over the previous question occur mainly on special rule resolutions that provide for consideration, debate and amendment of major bills. If the Rules Committee reports a restrictive special rule that either limits or denies floor amendments, the minority often will urge defeat of the previous question since that is the only way to change the special rule.

The May 10 rule mentioned above, for instance, was actually three closed (no amendment) rules rolled into one resolution. It covered the Iraq-Afghanistan-Hurricane Katrina supplemental appropriations bill, the agriculture disaster supplemental, and a bill by Rules member Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) requiring the total withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq within nine months. (The latter ploy was a shrewd move by the majority leadership to keep the Out of Iraq Caucus on board for the Iraq supplemental vote.)

At the end of one hour of debate on a special rule, the majority manager for the Rules Committee (Slaughter in the example above) moves the previous question. If adopted, the House immediately votes on adopting the rule. If it is defeated, however, the leading opponent of the previous question, usually the minority manager of the rule for the Rules Committee, is recognized for an additional hour and may amend the rule to permit the offering of additional specified amendments to the bill or propose a completely open amendment process. Previous question votes almost always are along party lines. The previous question for the Iraq supplemental rule was adopted, 222-202, with only three Democrats and no Republicans breaking ranks.

The debates on special rules allow the minority to highlight just how unfair the majority is in shutting out important minority amendments and denying Members and their constituents their full representational rights. It also gives the minority a chance to point out flawed policy provisions in majority bills that cannot be remedied without minority fixes, which unfortunately have been denied.

Today’s House Democrats have not lived up to their campaign promises to be more fair and open on amendments than their Republican predecessors. So far, only 17 percent of all rules have been open (compared with 19 percent under the previous Republican majority), while 43 percent of the rules have completely shut out all amendments (compared with 32 percent under the GOP). Consequently there are just as many previous question fights on special rules today as under the previous Republican majority. And the Democrats are just as successful in turning back Republican attempts to defeat the previous question.

The majority rules and the minority fights. Some things don’t change.

Don Wolfensberger is director of the Congress Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.

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