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Seinfeld Rules Are Sometimes About Something

Every now and then, the House Rules Committee reports a special rule for legislation that leaves you wondering, “Why did they need to do that?”

[IMGCAP(1)]Ordinarily, special rules are reserved for bills entailing considerable cost and controversy. Noncontroversial bills are usually considered under the suspension of the rules procedure (40 minutes of debate, no amendments and a two-thirds vote for passage). Roughly 80 percent of our laws in recent times originated as suspension bills in the House.

In mid-April, the Rules Committee reported a special rule for one of the least controversial bills imaginable — the Clean Estuaries Act of 2010.

The bill, reported by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in mid-March, simply reauthorized the National Estuary Program through 2016 with certain programmatic changes. It was reported by voice vote with no minority party views.

Why would such a white bread bill require a special rule when it could more easily be handled under suspension of the rules? Let’s call such special rules “Seinfeld rules,” after the popular sitcom. In one episode, when Seinfeld and his friends go to pitch their idea of a TV show to the network, they are asked what the show is about. Their reply: “It’s about nothing.” Similarly, some special rules seem to be about nothing. The bills they make in order may be substantive and meritorious, but the special rules are too ostentatious for the occasion — superfluous, ornamental third wheels, not needed to propel the vehicle.

However, in looking behind these Seinfeld rules, you may discover there is more to them than meets the eye. Likewise, those of us who were hooked on Seinfeld came to realize the show really was about something more than silly situations. It was about friendships and relationships (not always synonymous), and it was about character development (if not always character building). While it may not be possible to ascribe such humanizing tendencies to special rules, they do matter, even when they don’t seem to.

The rule for the clean estuaries bill served several meaningful purposes. The first, and most obvious, given the bill’s lack of controversy, was that it was being given extra time and attention because there just wasn’t much else happening that week. It was being used as “floor filler” to keep Members around so committees could still function with quorums and so Members would not flee before something important might come up later in the week — like a conference report or House bill being returned from the Senate (both rare occurrences these days).

It was a truncated week to begin with. The House returned from its two-week “district work period” on April 13 with votes occurring after 6:30 p.m. It was slated to adjourn two days later. The schedule was filled with numerous Sense of the House and Sense of Congress resolutions along with a few minor bills — all to be considered under suspension of the rules. A few “bed check” roll call votes were called to make sure Members were around.

The Clean Estuaries Act was listed on the Whip Notice as the last item for the week, “subject to a rule.” House Rules Chairwoman Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) had sent out an announcement the previous Thursday advising Members who wished to offer amendments to the estuaries bill to file them with the Rules Committee no later than 5 p.m. the following Tuesday. A careful examination revealed two other purposes a special rule can serve. First, notwithstanding the lack of controversy surrounding the bill, several Members were prompted to offer amendments.

Of the eleven amendments filed, four were withdrawn. The Rules Committee made in order the remaining seven amendments, all by Democrats. One was by the chairman of the reporting Transportation Committee, Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.), who had put together a package of four manager’s amendments. Five of the other six amendments were offered by first- or second-term Democrats, two of whom had been elected by less than 50 percent. Only two of the six Democrats were on the Transportation Committee.

One of the key roles of party leaders is to get their Members re-elected. They do this not only by helping with fundraising but by giving vulnerable Members opportunities to contribute to the policy process — to demonstrate they can make a difference. Given how rare floor amendments are nowadays, Members allowed to offer them are indeed privileged. (All seven Democratic amendments were subsequently adopted by the House.)

Finally, the estuaries rule contained an unrelated provision that allowed the Speaker to entertain a motion that same day to suspend the rules and take final action on a bill extending unemployment insurance to June 2. During debate on the rule, Republicans chided Democrats for taking the valuable time of the House on the estuaries bill instead of addressing larger issues like jobs, the economy and deficits.

Ironically, when it came time to vote on the benefits extension for the unemployed, only 30 percent of Republicans supported the measure.

Nevertheless, the bill garnered the necessary two-thirds vote for passage. For those awaiting overdue unemployment checks, the Seinfeld rule proved to be about something.

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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