It is the height of political arrogance for the majority party in the House of Representatives to dictate which minority party motions are legitimate and which are not. Yet that is exactly what the Democratic leadership is threatening through possible House rules changes governing the motion to recommit. [IMGCAP(1)]
The motion to recommit a bill to committee with instructions to amend it was originally used primarily as a majority party device to make last-minute, minor corrections before final passage. All that changed in 1909 when Speaker Joe Cannon (R-Ill.) temporarily headed off a bipartisan effort to amend House rules and remove him as chairman and a member of the Rules Committee. Cannon recognized conservative Democratic Rep. John Fitzgerald (N.Y.) to offer a substitute amendment that, among other things, guaranteed the minority a final opportunity to get a vote on its position using the motion to recommit with instructions. (Cannon would still be booted from Rules in a bipartisan revolt the following year.)
The minority’s right was slowly chipped away when Democrats last ran the House. Beginning in the early 1980s, Democratic Speakers and their Rules Committee majority minions used an obscure 1934 precedent to justify not only limiting the contents of the minority’s instructions but also eventually denying them the right to offer any instructions. Republicans fiercely fought these limits at every turn and vowed that if they came to power the minority’s right to offer its alternative in a motion to recommit with instructions would be fully restored. They fulfilled that promise upon taking control of the House in January 1995, and the Democratic minority enjoyed the right unimpeded over the 12 years of Republican control.
Nothing in the guaranteed right limits the minority to a motion that immediately adopts an amendment — the “forthwith” motion. The minority also may move to send a bill physically back to committee with instructions to hold more hearings, conduct a study or make specified changes in the legislation. This latter device, to recommit with instructions to report back an amendment “promptly” (instead of “forthwith”) has been unnerving Democratic leaders every time Republicans have used it to raise politically sensitive issues. In two instances the majority withdrew bills from the floor rather than risk having them sent back to committee.
The most recent example was the leadership’s decision to pull the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act amendments in the face of a likely GOP motion to recommit with instructions to “promptly” report back an amendment to exempt from FISA court coverage any surveillance of al-Qaida or other terrorist groups.
Democratic Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (Md.) argues that such motions are offered simply for “political purposes” rather than for the “substantive purposes” of “trying to change policy.” At the same time he concedes that Democrats used such tactics when they were in the minority. The only apparent difference is that Republicans have had a higher success rate with their recommit motions (though the only ones to succeed so far have been “forthwith” motions).
The majority is attempting to impose its notion that the only “legitimate” role of the minority party is to offer substantive policy alternatives in their recommit motions for instant incorporation in a bill. One way Democrats might try to enforce this concept is to only allow the minority to offer “forthwith” motions to recommit so that legislation can move immediately to final passage after the motion is voted. This “amend it now or forever hold your peace” approach overlooks one important role of an opposition party, and that is to oppose.
Opposing legislation does not carry with it the obligation to offer responsible policy alternatives that conform to the majority’s timetable for passing a bill (especially when the minority is being blocked from offering any amendments on a record-breaking 35 percent of major bills). Opposition may include not only trying to defeat a bill, but also to slow it down, including sending it back to a committee for more work.
Yes, a straight motion to recommit without instructions would accomplish this same purpose. But who is to say that the minority should not be able to score its own political points by sending a bill back to committee with a message attached? After all, the majority routinely gets plenty of PR mileage out of reporting and passing bills on its political agenda. To assert that the minority is playing politics with its motions to recommit while the majority is somehow above such things in advancing its bills is laughable.
The difference, the majority would have us believe, is that it is achieving a serious public policy purpose for the betterment of humankind while the minority is merely engaging in “cheap shot” political tricks with no redeeming social value. That may be true at times, but the minority should be allowed to stand or fall on public and media perceptions of its actions — whether they be seen as foolish or heroic. The majority also will stand or fall on public perceptions of the quality of its legislative enactments and may well look just as foolish if well-intentioned bills produce bad results.
At a time when Congressional Democrats are under heavy fire and record low public approval ratings for a lackluster performance (including their inability to put even one of the 12 regular appropriations bills on the president’s desk over a month after the start of the fiscal year), they would do well to spend more time honing their governance skills and less trying to control minority party behavior.
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.