Slaughter Solution for Health Care Suffers Whiplash

Posted March 22, 2010 at 3:29pm

At the Feb. 25 Blair House summit, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) rejected criticisms of how health care legislation was being handled, saying, “Those people sitting at the kitchen table … don’t want to hear about process. They want to hear about results.”

[IMGCAP(1)]An Associated Press photo published last week by ABC News might have you believing otherwise. There was Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) addressing a “Kill the Bill” rally of energized seniors in Indianapolis. Some were waving placards, one of which read: “‘SLAUGHTER SOLUTION’ Amend a Law That Doesn’t Exist By Passing a Bill Without Voting On It!”

Granted, these were not pitchfork-wielding peasants at the gates. But someone was savvy enough to capture on poster board a complex procedure in such easy-to-understand terms that even Beltway outsiders would get it. The 16 words encapsulated the contortions Democrats were contemplating to execute their health care endgame.

And execute, or better yet, “self-execute,” is the operative verb here. The “Slaughter Solution” was a plan to use a self-executing rule championed by House Rules Chairwoman Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) that would have provided for consideration of the reconciliation bill in addition to self-executing (or deeming) the adoption of the Senate-passed health care measure, thereby clearing it for the president’s signature.

It was presented as a way to protect those House Democrats who wanted no part of the Senate-passed bill, while allowing that bill to be enacted. By using the special rule vote both to automatically clear the Senate bill and simultaneously provide for amending it in another bill (the reconciliation sidecar), House Members could argue that: (a) they did not directly vote on the Senate bill, and (b) the procedure was simply a way to move a better alternative forward in the process.

Pelosi was quoted March 15 as saying of the deeming tactic, “I like it because people don’t have to vote on the Senate bill.” The next day, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said of the deem-and-pass ploy: “We’re playing it straight.” It “is consistent with the rules, consistent with former practice.” His office followed up by issuing a release the next day quoting several prominent political scientists charging Republicans with “hypocrisy” for criticizing the practice when they had used it themselves when in the majority. The release also included an excerpt from a 2006 Roll Call column I had written citing data showing the GOP majority had used the practice even more than Democrats at their worst.

I was especially amused when the column was picked up and quoted throughout the liberal blogosphere, as if I had somehow blessed the practice and exonerated the Democrats for considering its use on health care. Nothing could be further from the truth. I have been an equal opportunity critic when either party has engaged in procedural abuses at the expense of deliberation. Self-executing rules stand out as one of the most egregious procedural abuses, not just because they jam the minority party, but because they insult the intelligence and independence of every Member of Congress and the people they represent.

Self-executing rules deny Members the right to thoroughly discuss and decide important matters, and they give authority to the leadership to make Members’ decisions for them. Yes, the procedure protects Members from some politically tough votes, but that’s the essence of a Member’s job — to make difficult choices and be held accountable for them.

Further, the data in my 2006 column covered self-executing rules used to adopt amendments to bills on their initial consideration by the House. But using self-executing rules at the final stage of the legislative process, as was being contemplated for health care, is far more egregious. It allows the leadership to deem a bill into law without affording Members a vote on that enactment. That is why the procedure has been used so rarely on the endgame — only six times in the past century. To equate the two scenarios isn’t comparing apples and oranges. It’s the difference between eating an apple and swallowing a watermelon whole.

The Pelosi axiom that people are only interested in results, not process, may mostly be true. In this case, however, process and policy fused, which is why people became interested and angry. The Slaughter Solution became the Pelosi Problem — a new lightning rod of controversy that detracted from any perceived policy accomplishments. That is why the Democratic leadership scrapped the deeming strategy in favor of a separate vote on the Senate bill.

The strategy had fallen victim both to a public backlash and an internal whiplash from Democratic Members who were threatening to oppose such a rule. As one such Member, Rep. Dennis Cardoza (D-Calif.), remarked in confirming the leadership’s decision during the Rules Committee hearing, “We’ve had sanity prevail here.” The decision to return to the regular order, (coupled Sunday with the president’s announced executive order on abortion), saved the Democrats from self-executing into oblivion their own health care hopes.

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.