In the first five months of the 110th Congress, House Republicans have had an unusually strong record of disrupting the Democrats’ ability to govern the floor how they wish — even as Democrats argue those efforts have had little overall impact on their agenda.
In particular, last week’s temporary shutdown of the House floor during what was supposed to be a busy legislative week of appropriations bills is a move that is normally seen in the Senate, where the minority party enjoys considerably more rights.
“We control the floor,” declared House Republican Conference Chairman Adam Putnam (Fla.) on Thursday evening after a final deal was sealed to move forward on the annual spending bills. The agreement largely gave the minority everything it had asked for and forced Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) to retreat from his original plan to insert earmarks into bills when they get to conference.
Democrats are “finding out the realities of the majority, that it’s not divine power, and we’re finding that being in the minority isn’t zero power,” said Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.). “What you saw is an exercise in the new identities and the new roles.”
But Democratic leaders have flatly denied that Republican efforts have negatively impacted their abilities, asserting instead that the minority has simply been allowed to exercise its rights in the House.
“We didn’t lose control of the floor. … We chose not to exercise that control,” Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said at a late-night press conference in reference to days of delays caused by Republican lawmakers.
While Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) similarly defended the House majority’s response to GOP protests Friday — “We’ve made a commitment to greater openness” — he suggested that Democrats could strike back more forcibly in future confrontations.
“This is not a dictatorship,” he said, but added: “If there becomes a sense that people are blatantly abusing the process, there will be corrections.”
In fact, several Democratic lawmakers suggested that resentment among rank-and-file Members is growing over the incidents.
“They’re using guerrilla warfare tactics. Steny has tried to do this in a diplomatic way,” said one Democrat, who asked not to be identified.
“There have been some discussions that we probably would have been better off [if we had said] damn the torpedoes, full-speed ahead,” the lawmaker added, in reference to Democrats’ compromise with Republicans last week.
While lawmakers are not placing blame on Hoyer, who oversees the House floor for Democrats, some rank-and-file Members have begun to call for revisions to the chamber’s rules process.
“I don’t think there’s anyone questioning his ability. … That’s something we can’t control if they’re going to abuse open rules,” the Democrat added. “We may very well have to examine the open rule process. … There’s a growing anger on our side.”
Nonetheless, the earmark dispute is not the first time Republicans have used parliamentary tactics to wage fights on the floor this year, and it is likely not to be the last.
Throughout the session Republicans have used the motion to recommit — one of the few procedural tools afforded to the minority — to score legislative victories by peeling off Democratic votes to pass the measures on the floor.
When Republicans were in control, and particularly under former Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), they considered such votes matters of party loyalty and whipped their Conference to toe the line and regularly defeated Democratic motions to recommit.
Democrats argue that the motions to recommit are inconsequential victories of little legislative substance and counter that they do not rule their Caucus with the same iron discipline that they so often criticized Republicans for using.
“To vote no just for the sake of voting no, that was the style of the past,” said Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), who asserted Democrats offer a “more open leadership style.” He later added: “Why vote against a motion to recommit that you agree with?”
While Democratic leaders have instructed Members to vote against some of those measures — in particular, motions that effectively kill a bill — the majority has not issued a blanket directive to rank-and-file lawmakers.
“Under the previous leadership, this place was locked up tight. … I don’t think that’s healthy,” McGovern said.
Still, the GOP is counting on the voting records to be one part of their effort to make it a bruising 2008 election year.
“We’re using motions to recommit to train House freshman Democrats that they matter, because all we wanted to do was spend ’07 making sure that every freshman read the motions to recommit,” said a moderate Republican lawmaker. “Next January, the motions to recommit will flip to harder motions to recommit that wipe the entire bill out, and the freshmen are going to read it just as they are starting their campaigns and you will have now trained their Members to think ‘This is a real vote’ because you’ve voted on dozens of them.”
The GOP Member added, “It was a stunning mistake, I’m not sure the Democratic leaders understood that.”
Democratic leaders did attempt to curb the GOP’s ability to offer motions to recommit last month, but they were forced to halt the attempt to tinker with the new House rules implemented in January. Hoyer and leadership aides were looking at narrowing the definition of germaneness to limit the scope of what could be offered in a motion to recommit.
House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) and GOP leadership aides caught wind of the maneuvering and shut down the floor for more than four hours on debate of the Defense authorization bill using stalling procedural tactics until they reached an agreement with Hoyer to hold off on any changes in House rules without consulting with the minority.
That issue is still unresolved, although it has prompted calls from at least one Democrat, Financial Services Chairman Barney Frank (Mass.), for unrelated changes to House rules.
“It’s not a case of control of the floor. The rules are the rules,” Frank said of recent GOP maneuvers. But he said he has proposed altering House rules to limit the practice of Members calling for numerous “motions to rise,” which prompt a 15-minute vote and often are used as a stalling tactic.
Although the Massachusetts lawmaker has discussed the issue with Democratic leaders, he acknowledged it cannot be addressed until the 111th Congress.
“I think there’ll be a lot of interest in doing that in the next Congress,” he said.
In the meantime, GOP leadership aides concede that they are taking maximum advantage of the chinks in the Democrats’ armor as they adjust to governing and moving a legislative agenda. Even Obey acknowledged the learning curve on the floor Thursday.
“We have not had much experience in the last 14 years at either producing or delaying [committee] reports. That has been the prerogative of the majority party,” he said. “We’re now the majority, and as you know, we had a lot of catch-up work to do from the last session, and we’ve been working long hours.”
Republicans also have pounced on new House rules written by Democrats that were not thoroughly vetted and have caused a separate round of problems for the majority, including the “pay-as-you-go” rules that opened up legislation to tougher motions to recommit, new earmark reform rules that pushed back deadlines and contributed to the meltdown last week, and even a new ethics rule that unintentionally barred Members who are pilots from flying their own planes.
In early May, Democrats fixed the plane rule to exempt lawmakers and their families who fly on personal aircraft from a broader rule banning corporate jet use.
Those governing growing pains were most evident Thursday when the House shut down completely and rank-and-file Members spent hours waiting on whether the spending bills could move forward.
“It was a crisis in management,” observed a senior Republican. “Running the House is herding 218 cats every single day you’re in session. When you start being unable to do that, it’s a problem. … This shouldn’t be happening this early in a Congress.”
Former National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Reynolds (N.Y.) said that while these battles aren’t necessarily the fights that bring majorities back, he said they hold some significance. “Sometimes moral victories or Beltway victories or House victories are important,” he said, noting that Democrats are adjusting to being under the heightened microscope that the majority brings.
“All of this has a little weight. They need to put their spin on it and say, ‘Well this is all inside stuff,’ but the editorials I read [on earmarks] came from all across the country,” Reynolds continued. “So that’s this week’s news. They will be looking next week to get back in control of where they lost control.”
In the meantime, Democrats have asserted that the appropriations compromise remains on tenuous ground — including the threat of simply closing debate on the measure and eliminating the ability to offer amendments — should Republicans revert to their earlier behavior.
“If they cross the line and the spirit of this agreement is violated, then they are the ones to blame for any action taken by the Democrats. Bipartisanship is a two-way street,” said a Democratic aide, who asked not to be identified.
Another Democratic lawmaker, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity, asserted that the last week will prompt “significant internal reflection” about how the majority operates, but defended the Democrats’ ability, asserting, “Anybody who thinks the Democrats aren’t in control is making a huge mistake.”