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‘Vote Pummeling’ Can Soften Majority’s Hard Line in House

The minority party in the House of Representatives cannot use the Senate’s filibuster or “hold” to block or protest majority power plays. Instead, the minority has what I call the “procedural vote pummeling ploy,” in which it forces a series of recorded votes on various procedural motions. [IMGCAP(1)]

The votes can tie up House floor business for hours on end since each recorded vote takes at least 15 minutes. The ploy focuses media and public attention on perceived abuses of power. More importantly, the minority’s threat to “shut down the House” can force the majority to reconsider its heavy-handed tactics.

That’s exactly what happened on May 16 when Republicans caught wind of a rumor that the majority was about to spring a House rules change either to curtail the minority’s right to recommit legislation with instructions (offer a final amendment to a bill) or to change the germaneness standard for such amendments. The rumor was enough to trigger a rolling pummel of 12 votes on adjournment, quorum calls and demands that the Committee of the Whole rise on the Defense authorization bill.

The vote pummeling only stopped when the majority and minority leaders agreed to a cease-fire while they tried to hammer out an armistice. They emerged from their talks with a temporary truce to delay consideration of any rule change until after the Memorial Day recess (which ends tomorrow), and to require prior consultation with the minority on any proposed change.

The ostensible motive for the majority’s power play is the unintended consequences of restoring the “pay as you go” rule earlier this year. That rule requires deficit-neutral offsets for bills that either increase mandatory spending (entitlements) or reduce taxes. As previously noted in this space (“Democrats’ D.C. Vote Fix Backfires in Gun Law Blowup,” April 9), the required offset in a bill can broaden the scope of what amendments are germane to that measure. That, in turn, allows the minority party to exploit this wider universe of permissible amendments in its motion to recommit with instructions.

So far this year, Republicans have prevailed on 13 out of 38 motions to recommit with instructions — two more victories than minority Democrats scored in the previous12 years combined. Republicans claim only two of this year’s motions involved bills having PAYGO offsets and any attempt to limit or deny the minority’s motion would be overkill in the first degree. They fear the majority is only using PAYGO as an excuse to rein in other nettlesome motions to recommit that can politically embarrass moderate Democrats if they oppose them. (The GOP’s back-to-back successes May 24 with tough recommit motions on two lobby bills only underscore the bipartisan appeal such motions can have — attracting 158 Democratic votes in one case and 33 in the other.)

Republicans have good reason to be paranoid — at least historically. Majority Democrats really were out to destroy the minority’s right to recommit with amendments during their previous decade in power (1985-94). By exploiting a 1934 House precedent, they were able to chip away at the minority’s right to such an extent that on 47 occasions they barred all amendments in recommit motions. That denial of the minority’s right was only reversed when Republicans took power in 1995 and kept their pledge to fully restore the guarantee.

The current brouhaha can be resolved peacefully if both parties are willing to work in good faith to sort through their respective perceptions and differences. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) are two of the most forceful and articulate partisan advocates I have ever observed. But they both also have a strong institutional sense when it comes to protecting the dignity and integrity of the House.

Hoyer knows his first responsibility is to help pass the majority’s legislative agenda with minimal minority interference. And Boehner knows that his chief role is to defeat the majority’s agenda while advancing minority alternatives. But they both also realize that the work of the House can only go forward in an environment of mutual comity and respect. Without that it will lose the confidence and support of the people.

The majority must recognize just how sacrosanct the motion to recommit is to the minority. That shouldn’t be all that difficult since Democrats used it extensively over the past dozen years. And the minority must recognize that the PAYGO rule should be allowed to operate without prompting partisan stunts every time it is in play. After all, when the rule was first instituted in 1992, it had strong GOP support as a common-sense way to restore fiscal sanity.

As I suggested in my earlier column, there are ways to handle this problem without curbing the minority’s right to recommit. The majority found one way when it resurrected the D.C. vote bill as two measures and then, after passing them separately, directed the Clerk to merge them into a single bill before sending it to the Senate. The Blue Dog Democrats have suggested other ways to deal with the problem such as exempting de minimis amounts of mandatory spending from enforcement procedures. For example, entitlements costing less than $5 million a year would not trigger a point of order.

The House must deal with this problem, and on a bipartisan basis. Leaders Hoyer and Boehner are to be commended for taking a step back to examine this procedural dilemma in a more dispassionate and thoughtful manner. It is in the interest of both parties to resolve this amicably since the reputations of all Members are closely tied to that of the House.

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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