Re: Bending the Rules

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I’m convinced there are no new arguments in Washington; the only thing that changes is the side that is making them.

As House Democratic leaders consider their options for passing the health care bill, there is going to be a lot of talk about the use of the “self-executing rule” — or, as Republicans are taking to calling it, because it sounds scary, the “Slaughter Solution.” I’ve been poking around a bit on the history of this. You may not be surprised to learn that this is something that House members tend to complain about when they are in the minority–and use at will when they are in the majority.

To wit, here’s what Majority Leader Steny Hoyer had to say about it back in 2003. The difference between now and then, of course, was that he was in the minority:

Not content with the denying the Minority to offer amendments and substitutes, the Majority has even refused to permit Democrats the chance to vote on the Majority’s own bills. That is precisely what happened on June 12. This being the 23rd, that was 13 days ago. When the Republican leadership reported a self-executing rule providing for the adoption of the $82 billion plan over 10 years and an almost trillion-dollar plan over 20 years, accelerating the increased child tax credit for low-income people families, we didn’t even get an opportunity to vote on the bill itself except by reference in a self-executing rule. What kind of lack of confidence does that display? What kind of process in pursuit of effectiveness does that mean that we are adopting? What kind of demeaning of democracy is the objective of efficiency resulting in? I would remiss to fail to note that barely 1 hour later, the House passed on a bipartisan vote — you talk about bipartisan votes — a nonbinding motion to instruct the conferees to accept the substantially more responsible Senate version of that bill, doing exactly the opposite of what a half an hour the House had voted on. Why? Because it had no full debate, and it was very ambivalent, and we knew the House was ambivalent, and you knew the House was ambivalent, and you were afraid, fearful that 12 or 15 Republicans, if allowed to vote on the substance as opposed to voting procedurally on a rule where party loyalty is so important, you were afraid to put the substance to the test of democracy, fearful that you would lose 12 to 15, and we would prevail in our position. House Democrats, of course, are trying to offer the same Senate bill as the substitute, but the Republican Majority blocked us from doing so.

Mr. Chairman, clearly we can do better, and we owe the American people, this institution and ourselves. In these discussions on legislative process, I have always been forthright. When Democrats controlled the House, we did not always provide for fair debates. Mr. Dreier, you were absolutely correct. We should neither excuse those past practices nor count their occurrences. No one expects every rule to be open, but we do expect that the opportunity to debate legislation be the norm, not the exception.

UPDATE: And how often did Republicans employ self-executing rules? In that same hearing, Martin Frost, then a Democratic Congressman, tells us:

For instance, thus far this year, the Rules Committee has reported 47 rules. In only four of those were rules were fully open. Quite frankly, those rules were for bills that might just as well have been considered under suspension of the rules since they were noncontroversial and passed by near unanimous margins. Among the remaining rules, 10 have been completely closed, 5 were conference report rules, and 23 restrictive rules, severely limiting the offering of amendments brought to the Rules Committee by Democratic Members. Three rules made entirely new text in order as a base bill. Eleven rules contained self-executing provisions. And while the record of the committee has improved, 17 rules were reported after 8 p.m., and three of those were rules that were reported after 6:30 a.m. on the following day, just a few short hours before the House went into session to vote on them.

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