It is not easy to be in the minority in the House. House Republicans have many reasons to complain about the Democrats failure to apply the regular order, to give the minority opportunities to be heard and to have amendments to bills in committee and on the floor. I can see offering embarrassing or gotcha amendments to protest a majority jamming things through without minority input or treating bills in a cavalier fashion. Or offering amendments that may be embarrassing but that advance a serious party ideological interest.
But the America COMPETES reauthorization was done in a bipartisan fashion and involves a bill with little division or controversy. The original bill, when it came up in 2007, got 367 votes in the House. This version involved close cooperation between Science and Technology Chairman Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), hardly a knee-jerk partisan or authoritarian, and Michigan Republican Rep. Vernon Ehlers, one of the most thoughtful House experts on science matters. The porn measure was not raised in the committee nor brought up as a possible amendment for the bill on the floor. It was sprung at the last minute solely as a stink bomb. Among House Republicans, only Ehlers, who is retiring, voted against the MTR. When the Democrats withdrew the bill, Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) were visibly exultant.
The unfortunate fact is that the motion to recommit with instructions has for more than a decade become a hollow vehicle and a farce. Under the majority Republicans, every MTR was framed as a party-line procedural vote, and Democrats regularly failed whatever the merits of their alternative. Under the majority Democrats, the minority has in fact succeeded at several alternatives, but far more often than not the minority has eschewed the chance to use the MTR to offer constructive amendments to bills or to show a minority alternative vision, and instead has used the gotcha route. Expect a slew of attack ads portraying Members as backers of child molestation and government-subsidized porn.
A minority party concerned about legislating would use every vehicle to protest wrongful and high-handed treatment by the majority, and it would find ways to participate constructively in making better policy when the majority was fair. There has been plenty of Democratic arrogance and high-handedness. But as we have seen repeatedly on the many bills brought to the floor with strong bipartisan effort and teamwork, the committee minority members who worked inside and had their amendments accepted have then turned around and voted against their own bills.
John Boehner used to be a serious legislator. Eric Cantor is smart and a justifiably rising star in the GOP firmament. But they are becoming the Bart Simpsons of Congress, gleeful at smarmy and adolescent tactics and unable and unwilling to get serious. Instead of encouraging a constructive relationship with the serious and fair-minded legislators on the Democratic side, they are adding to the traction of their take-no-prisoners counterparts. What a shame.
Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.