Skip to content

Democrats Take Supplemental Process to New Level of Outrage

Whenever I get a little discouraged about the way things are going in Congress, I take out my copy of the Democrats’ 2006 promise to restore “Honest Leadership and Open Government,” and then I take heart that all is not lost — help must be on the way.

[IMGCAP(1)]Under the heading “Regular Order for Legislation,” the Democrats argue that “Bills should be developed following full hearings and open subcommittee and committee markups.” Moreover, the manifesto continues, “Bills should generally come to the floor under a procedure that allows open, full, and fair debate consisting of a full amendment process that grants the Minority the right to offer its alternatives including a substitute.”

The House Democratic leadership’s decision to circumvent the Appropriations Committee and bring the massive $184 billion supplemental war funding bill directly to the House floor must have been an inadvertent deviation from their “regular order” pledge, I surmised. After all, not only had they prevented Appropriations members from marking up the bill, but they also denied all House Members the right to offer floor amendments. Surely a mistake had been made. (Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid [D-Nev.] initially planned to bypass his Appropriations Committee as well, but its chairman, Sen. Robert Byrd [D-W.Va.], to his credit, stood firm and insisted on holding a markup.)

When House Republicans caught wind of the strategy to use an obsolete appropriations bill from last year as a launching pad for three nonamendable amendments on war funding, Iraq troop withdrawals, and sundry domestic and foreign spending programs, they staged a series of procedural votes over two weeks to alert the Democrats to the obvious misdirection their “New Direction for America” had taken.

As it turned out, the Democrats’ strategy was not an oversight. They proceeded to secure from the Rules Committee a special rule sanctioning their committee-bypass, minority-overpass gambit. Not only did the procedure bar all regular floor amendments, but, because it used a previously passed House bill as its base, it also denied the minority its traditional right to offer a motion to recommit with instructions — a final opportunity to amend a bill. This is because the recommit guarantee only applies to the initial consideration of a bill by the House. (Republicans had used the same ploy on three continuing appropriations bills in the 104th Congress in 1995, and the Democrats’ protest was so intense that the strategy was soon abandoned.)

The special rule embodying this thumbscrew device for the Iraq supplemental was adopted May 15 on a party-line vote. Unbeknownst to Democrats, however, Republicans had one protest arrow left in their quiver. When the vote was cast on the first amendment to provide $162.5 billion in funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, 132 Republicans voted “present,” and the amendment was rejected, 141-149, with 147 Democrats and two Republicans voting “nay.”

The troop withdrawal amendment was then adopted on a near party-line vote. The third amendment, providing $21.2 billion for disaster relief, new veterans’ education benefits (offset by a surtax on the wealthy), extended unemployment benefits, and foreign and military construction funds, passed 256-166. The measure was then sent to the Senate, without its war funding centerpiece, where the funding was restored, much to the chagrin of anti-war groups who euphorically believed the House vote signaled a cutoff of war funding.

If the supplemental strategy sounds familiar, it is because it resembles, but is not identical to, the procedure used for the previous Iraq supplemental in May 2007. In that instance however, the special rule provided for the consideration of three bills, not amendments, on Iraq troop withdrawals, war funding and domestic needs. None of the bills was reported by committee, and all were closed to floor amendments. The major difference then was that the minority was at least allowed to offer motions to recommit with instructions on all three bills. Pursuant to the special rule, the three bills were then consolidated under a single bill number by the Clerk and sent to the Senate.

By taking the supplemental process to a new level of procedural outrage this year, the Democratic leaders pushed the envelope to its outer limits. Their heavy-handed machinations make one wonder just how far they are willing to take partisan governance at the expense of the “regular order” and a working committee system.

I was tempted to suggest that it is all a throwback to an earlier partisan era (1890-1910) that gave us “Czar Speakers” such as Thomas Brackett Reed (R-Maine) and “Uncle Joe” Cannon (R-Ill.) who dominated the legislative process and committees with an iron hand. It began with “Reed’s Rules” in 1890 to overcome minority obstructionism and ended with Cannon’s overthrow in 1910 as Rules chairman for his arbitrary manipulation of committee assignments and agendas.

But then I came across an instance in 1898 when Reed was Speaker and Cannon was his hand-picked Appropriations chairman. President William McKinley called Cannon to the White House to plead for additional funds to prepare for what seemed an inevitable war with Spain. Cannon introduced the $50 million war-preparedness supplemental, had it reported from committee, and it passed unanimously.

Speaker Reed had been left out of the loop intentionally because he opposed going to war. When he questioned Cannon as to why he had not been notified, Cannon replied that he had been entrusted by the Speaker to run his committee. Had he consulted the Speaker and met with objection, he would have had to call up the bill anyway. “Perhaps you are right,” replied Reed. The two never discussed the matter again. The committee system still mattered, even under “Czar” Reed. That’s more than can be said today.

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.

Recent Stories

Supreme Court airs concerns over Oregon city’s homelessness law

Supreme Court to decide if government can regulate ‘ghost guns’

Voters got first true 2024 week with Trump on trial, Biden on the trail

Supreme Court to hear oral arguments on abortion and Trump

House passes $95.3B aid package for Ukraine, Israel, Taiwan

Senate sends surveillance reauthorization bill to Biden’s desk