If your side is losing, change the rules

Posted: Apr 13, 2007 12:01 AM
If your side is losing, change the rules

Do you recall how House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) was elected? Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) attempted to purge him from the Democratic Leadership. But came the Leadership elections and Hoyer defeated her candidate and long-time ally, Representative John P. Murtha (D-PA), by a nearly two-to-one margin. Either Madame Speaker miscalculated or she stuck with a losing choice to the end. Whatever the case, Hoyer is Majority Leader and now he is trying to change one of the rules adopted at the beginning of the 110th Congress because the Republican Minority has found a way to be heard by using that rule.

Since January of 2007 the Minority has been having a jolly time sending back measures to the committees from which they came with what is called a motion to "recommit." It is all because of a House rule the Democrats adopted at the beginning of the year stating that all legislation involving new expenditures (other than appropriations) must have a "pay as you go" (PAYGO) plan included. The Republicans have pointed out that if new money is appropriated in a specific bill and the funds cannot be taken from somewhere else the bill can be sent back to committee with "instructions" to figure it out.

Republicans have had at least 17 Democrats voting with them on several successful motions. The Water Quality Investment Act (H.R. 569) contained a provision to prohibit the use of funds to lobby or retain a lobbyist and it allocated many new funds for programs without identifying the source of the money. The vote on the motion to recommit on March 7 was 425-0, with 228 Democrats and 197 Republicans voting to recommit to the Transportation Committee -- with instructions.

The motion to recommit the Gulf Coast Hurricane Recovery Act (H.R. 1227) was helped by an amendment that prohibited occupancy in public housing if the individual renter had been convicted of dealing drugs, a sexual offense, domestic violence or gang crime and it gave priority to individuals who were working. Many Democrats could not risk having to vote on that one way or the other so they voted to recommit.

The motion to recommit the D.C. Voting Bill (H.R. 1433) included repealing the gun ban in the District of Columbia, which previously had been supported by a majority of Members of the House of Representatives. And the motion to recommit the Rail Security Bill (H.R. 1401), which contained a provision granting immunity from civil liability to any person who voluntarily reported suspicious persons to anyone in transportation security. That came as a response to the airline passengers who reported feeling uncomfortable when Muslims prayed in the aisle of a commercial 747. These passengers were later sued by the Muslims for reporting their fears to the airline. That vote was 304-121: Republicans 199-0; Democrats 105-121

You get the point. Because of this strategy, Republicans have been successful. But it is important to note that use of the motion to recommit has been the traditional way for the minority party to impact upon or change a bill since 1909 - and both parties respected it. Rules, however, are almost never changed after they are adopted at the beginning of a session of Congress because otherwise Members could not follow what was going on.

For various reasons, conservative Democrats have been afraid to vote against these motions to recommit. But the Democratic leaders need the votes of conservative Democrats on other things, so they have been forced to let their membership vote as they please, and with these additional votes, Republicans have been able to control the final votes on some important legislation. However, there are enough Democratic Representatives from districts which voted for George W. Bush by more than 55% that if Republicans were to make skillful use of this issue they could defeat many of them in the future. For now, the prospects look bleak. Whenever the liberals get in a corner they respond with a ploy for power. They are doing it again this time. Instead of leaving the rules the way they were when Republicans took control in 1995 they want to take the motion to recommit away from the minority.

If the media understood its responsibilities it would bring this issue to light but very little has been written on the subject. When the House reconvenes next week, Representative Hoyer has promised to bring up the D.C. Voting Bill again. This time he has something planned to keep the Bill from going back to committee and to keep the more conservative Democrats from having to vote on the D.C. gun issue. This will put an end to what has been a House tradition since 1909: the minority party gets one last chance to oppose legislation which it finds abhorrent or send it back to committee to be revised. The minority always has a difficult time in our Republic. Must the only tool it has in Congress be taken away?