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A committee report by either chamber might have clarified whether the intent and/or effect of the bill was to waive Congress’ Speech or Debate Clause immunity under the Constitution, thereby giving federal agents unfettered access to Members’ office files, computers and phone conversations. (Proponents argued the bill would treat Members of Congress the same as every other citizen.) If so, that would be a huge intrusion by the executive on Congress’ independence. But Congress was in a hurry to blunt public fury.
The Senate proceeded to consider two dozen amendments over three days, including a constitutional amendment to limit the terms of Members, an amendment prohibiting unauthorized earmarks and amendments to deny pensions to Members who go to work as lobbyists or are convicted felons. Of the 10 amendments adopted, the one gaining the most attention was by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and would extend the insider-trading prohibition to the disclosure of nonpublic political intelligence to firms that sell such information. The Senate then passed the bill, 96-3.
The House took a completely different tack.
Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) took charge of drafting a modified version that replaced the Grassley amendment with a study and expanded the insider trading prohibition to all government employees. Instead of bringing the measure to the floor under an open amendment process, the Rules Committee arranged to bring up the bill under a suspension of the rules, meaning only 40 minutes of debate, no amendments and a two-thirds vote for passage.
House leaders have a paternal instinct to protect Members from themselves on sensitive matters such as ethics by barring nasty floor fights over who has the hairiest hair shirt or most stinging self-flagellation whip. While the closed process provoked some squawking from Members of both parties, the bill passed overwhelmingly, 417-2.
The ball is now back in the Senate’s court, with no apparent rush to resolve differences. The Senate may, at least temporarily, be reverting to its more traditional role of serving as the saucer in which to cool the hot coffee from the House — or, in this case, its own instant brew.
Don Wolfensberger is a Congressional fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center, a resident scholar with the Bipartisan Policy Center and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.