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House Democrats Big on Talk, Not on Walk

House Democrats are taking to the floor during the current recess’s pro forma sessions to protest Congressional inaction on a host of pressing issues – tax rates set to increase at year’s end, looming spending cuts and expired farm policies.

But when Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) asked for unanimous consent Sept. 28 to move a series of bills forward, Democratic Reps. Chris Van Hollen (Md.) and Henry Waxman (Calif.) reserved their right to object, flayed the GOP in remarks and then let the legislation be passed.

The episode underscored both the difficulty Democrats face as they try to make something happen in the House or highlight Congress’ lack of productivity. The few levers of power available to them can do little but slow things down, and Democrats have so far not followed through to the full extent they could.

Van Hollen said rejecting the unanimous consent request to move the bills on Sept. 28 would have gone against the point of the Democrats’ protest.

“We’re forgetting the people’s business done, those were important measures. We support them,” he said. “We just think that in addition to doing some of these important but very modest initiatives, we should tackle the big issues.”

“The minority in the House has very few ways of getting things on the agenda,” said Don Wolfensberger, director of the Congress Project at the Wilson Center, a former top staffer for the House Rules Committee and a Roll Call Contributing Writer.

But broadly speaking, Democrats have not made things as difficult for the GOP majority as they might.

For instance, Democrats have repeatedly supplied votes necessary to pass big-ticket items such as the debt ceiling deal and appropriations measures, helping Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) overcome defections from his right flank.

“Yes, we could have played politics with those and let our country default on its debt,” a Democratic leadership aide said. “We did it because it was the right thing to do for the country,” the source said, adding that Democrats won concessions in the process.

Democrats have not won any votes on motions to recommit bills to committee, one of the few ways members of a House minority have to force votes on issues of their choosing.

In contrast, Republicans used the tactic with success during the 110th and 111th Congresses as vulnerable Blue Dog Democrats jumped ship on hot-button social issue votes on items such as gun control and abortion.

Although the Republican leadership has been successful in persuading its Conference to stick together on such votes, Democratic operatives now say those tallies are providing fodder for campaign advertising against vulnerable Republicans running for re-election.

“They made a decision to go for party unity rather than mitigate attacks,” a Democratic operative said. “The result was we could have them vote on anything we wanted. And that’s what we did.”

“They fought for us, walked miles in these boots. And Congressman Duffy has walked in these … ahem . shoes. Facing a government shutdown, Duffy voted against making sure our soldiers got paid. Against increasing combat pay. But Duffy made sure he got paid,” contends an ad aired by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee targeting Rep. Sean Duffy (R-Wis.).

The vote in question occurred on a stopgap spending bill and specified funding amounts for military personnel.

Another important, but rarely successful, maneuver for the minority is the discharge petition, which forces a floor vote on a bill if petitioners gather the signatures of 218 Members.

There have been five discharge petitions filed in this Congress. The most recent, an effort to force a vote on a farm bill, was signed by Republicans including Rep. Kristi Noem (S.D.). Republican Reps. Scott Tipton (Colo.) and Renee Ellmers (N.C.) later withdrew their signatures.

Another discharge petition, for a campaign finance measure, has been used by Democrats for messaging purposes. The bill has little chance of legislative action.

Discharge petitions are seldom successful. The Congressional Research Service reported in 2003 that only 47 of the 563 filed since 1931 obtained the required signatures. The House voted for discharge 26 times and passed 19 of the measures involved. Two became law and two other measures changed House rules.

But discharge petitions can help spur action, even if 218 signatures are never obtained. In this Congress, Members filed a discharge petitions for the STOCK Act, which imposed disclosure requirements and placed new limits on stock trading by Members. The bill was eventually enacted.

One particularly clever procedural move by Democrats was proved effective earlier in this Congress. Many Democrats voted “present” last year on a budget proposal offered by the Republican Study Committee that called for deeper spending cuts than the budget approved by the Budget Committee. When the RSC plan appeared on its way to adoption, Republicans were forced to switch their votes to opposition.

Democrats have limited the use of such tactics, saying they lose power with repeated use. And they argue there is little more they can do.

“As long as the Republicans are determined not to do the people’s business, they’re in control. I mean they’re in charge of the House. They control the keys to the chamber. We’re just calling upon them to open the chamber to do the people’s business,” Van Hollen said.

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