Feb. 10, 2016 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.

House Democrats are taking to the floor during the current recess's pro forma sessions to protest Congressional inaction on a host of pressing issues - tax rates set to increase at year's end, looming spending cuts and expired farm policies.

But when Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) asked for unanimous consent Sept. 28 to move a series of bills forward, Democratic Reps. Chris Van Hollen (Md.) and Henry Waxman (Calif.) reserved their right to object, flayed the GOP in remarks and then let the legislation be passed.

The episode underscored both the difficulty Democrats face as they try to make something happen in the House or highlight Congress' lack of productivity. The few levers of power available to them can do little but slow things down, and Democrats have so far not followed through to the full extent they could.

Van Hollen said rejecting the unanimous consent request to move the bills on Sept. 28 would have gone against the point of the Democrats' protest.

"We're forgetting the people's business done, those were important measures. We support them," he said. "We just think that in addition to doing some of these important but very modest initiatives, we should tackle the big issues."

"The minority in the House has very few ways of getting things on the agenda," said Don Wolfensberger, director of the Congress Project at the Wilson Center, a former top staffer for the House Rules Committee and a Roll Call Contributing Writer.

But broadly speaking, Democrats have not made things as difficult for the GOP majority as they might.

For instance, Democrats have repeatedly supplied votes necessary to pass big-ticket items such as the debt ceiling deal and appropriations measures, helping Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) overcome defections from his right flank.

"Yes, we could have played politics with those and let our country default on its debt," a Democratic leadership aide said. "We did it because it was the right thing to do for the country," the source said, adding that Democrats won concessions in the process.

Democrats have not won any votes on motions to recommit bills to committee, one of the few ways members of a House minority have to force votes on issues of their choosing.

In contrast, Republicans used the tactic with success during the 110th and 111th Congresses as vulnerable Blue Dog Democrats jumped ship on hot-button social issue votes on items such as gun control and abortion.

Although the Republican leadership has been successful in persuading its Conference to stick together on such votes, Democratic operatives now say those tallies are providing fodder for campaign advertising against vulnerable Republicans running for re-election.

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