Outside editorial: House democrats balked on promise to treat minority fairly

Posted: Tuesday, January 13, 2009

"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." So promised Nancy Pelosi, now House speaker, before her party regained control of Congress two years ago. That fairness, it turned out, was easier to preach than practice.

When they took over in 2007, Democrats set aside their pledge in order to muscle through their agenda during the first 100 hours; their promises continued to prove hollow in the ensuing months. As with the GOP takeover in 1994 and its accompanying pledges of open debate and fair treatment, Democrats' asserted good intentions yielded to the realities of governing in the face of an opposing party more interested in making mischief than law. Democrats brought more measures to the House floor under closed rules - permitting no amendments - than any of the six previous Republican-controlled congresses.

As Sarah Binder, Thomas Mann and Molly Reynolds put it in a new report from the Brookings Institution, "Democratic leaders in 2007 quickly concluded that implacable opposition to their agenda by President Bush and the Republican congressional leadership, combined with the 60-vote hurdle in the Senate, made it virtually impossible to return to regular order in committee, on the floor or in conference and still advance their agenda. ... Their pledge to curb the procedural abuses of the previous Republican majority would for the most part have to be set aside. The choice was not surprising. Still, it had the effect of exacerbating partisan tensions in Congress and further fouling the toxic atmosphere permeating Washington."

A first-day-of-session skirmish over new House rules suggests that the situation in the 111th Congress may not be much better. The dispute involved a particularly arcane aspect of the rules: whether a "motion to recommit," essentially the minority's right to offer an alternative, must include the word "forthwith," in which case the alternative is immediately adopted if approved, or whether it can use the word "promptly," in which case the measure is sent back to committee and effectively killed for the time being. Democrats tightened the rules to end the latter practice, which had become a popular tool in the previous Congress. They argued that Republicans had repeatedly abused these motions, wording them to put vulnerable members in a bind by having to choose between killing a bill or taking a politically unpalatable vote destined to turn up in a 30-second attack ad. What was taken away, House Rules Committee Chairman Louise M. Slaughter, D-N.Y., told us, was "a gimmick that was used to kill bills. ... The intent was to bring up guns, abortion, illegals - whatever they wanted to, even if it had nothing to do with the bill."

Republicans countered that Democrats were unfairly limiting one of their few procedural powers. "A rules package that literally shreds the Obama vision" of bipartisanship, charged California Republican David Dreier, the ranking member of the Rules Committee. His complaints seem hyperbolic. "I'm not that upset about this being a major diminishment of minority rights," Donald Wolfensberger, the former Republican staff director of the rules panel, told us.

But there is a legitimate concern about whether the House can return to a semblance of "regular order": committee hearings and markups rather than measures brought precipitously to the floor with little time for review; reasonable allowance for amendments on the floor rather than closed rules allowing no changes; and conferences to resolve differences between the chambers rather than leadership-dictated products. With a bolstered majority and a new president promoting bipartisanship, House Democrats ought to try loosening the reins - and Republicans ought to show that they are more interested in writing legislation than playing political gotcha.

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