July 31, 2014 SIGN IN | REGISTER

House Democrats Big on Talk, Not on Walk

Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call
Rep. Chris Van Hollen and other Democrats face the arduous task of trying to move their agenda as the House minority.

"They made a decision to go for party unity rather than mitigate attacks," a Democratic operative said. "The result was we could have them vote on anything we wanted. And that's what we did."

"They fought for us, walked miles in these boots. And Congressman Duffy has walked in these ... ahem . shoes. Facing a government shutdown, Duffy voted against making sure our soldiers got paid. Against increasing combat pay. But Duffy made sure he got paid," contends an ad aired by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee targeting Rep. Sean Duffy (R-Wis.).

The vote in question occurred on a stopgap spending bill and specified funding amounts for military personnel.

Another important, but rarely successful, maneuver for the minority is the discharge petition, which forces a floor vote on a bill if petitioners gather the signatures of 218 Members.

There have been five discharge petitions filed in this Congress. The most recent, an effort to force a vote on a farm bill, was signed by Republicans including Rep. Kristi Noem (S.D.). Republican Reps. Scott Tipton (Colo.) and Renee Ellmers (N.C.) later withdrew their signatures.

Another discharge petition, for a campaign finance measure, has been used by Democrats for messaging purposes. The bill has little chance of legislative action.

Discharge petitions are seldom successful. The Congressional Research Service reported in 2003 that only 47 of the 563 filed since 1931 obtained the required signatures. The House voted for discharge 26 times and passed 19 of the measures involved. Two became law and two other measures changed House rules.

But discharge petitions can help spur action, even if 218 signatures are never obtained. In this Congress, Members filed a discharge petitions for the STOCK Act, which imposed disclosure requirements and placed new limits on stock trading by Members. The bill was eventually enacted.

One particularly clever procedural move by Democrats was proved effective earlier in this Congress. Many Democrats voted "present" last year on a budget proposal offered by the Republican Study Committee that called for deeper spending cuts than the budget approved by the Budget Committee. When the RSC plan appeared on its way to adoption, Republicans were forced to switch their votes to opposition.

Democrats have limited the use of such tactics, saying they lose power with repeated use. And they argue there is little more they can do.

"As long as the Republicans are determined not to do the people's business, they're in control. I mean they're in charge of the House. They control the keys to the chamber. We're just calling upon them to open the chamber to do the people's business," Van Hollen said.

 

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