When Republicans regained control of the House in 1995 after 40 years in the minority, they vowed to eliminate the Democrats’ “king-of-the-hill” process for voting on budget resolution substitutes.
Since 1982, the Democratic-controlled Rules Committee had been issuing special rules on budget resolutions that allowed for votes on substitute amendments by various factions, notwithstanding the disposition of a previous substitute. Under ordinary amending procedures, once an amendment in the nature of a substitute is adopted, no further amendments are allowed.
The “king-of-the-mountain” approach, as it was originally called, provided that if more than one substitute is adopted, the last one adopted prevails, even if it has a smaller majority. Not coincidentally, the last substitute to be offered would always be the Democratic budget reported by the Budget Committee.
Minority Republicans cried “foul” on grounds it was a perverse twist on majority rule because the “king” was predetermined by the way the amendments were positioned in the special rule. The Democrats replied it was simply a matter of fairness that all sides should have an equal opportunity to get a vote on their budgets. As it turned out, there never was an occasion when more than one budget substitute got a majority vote, let alone when a weaker king trumped a stronger king.
Still, Republicans stuck to their guns when they took control of the House. At first it was suggested they adopt instead what some called a “queen-of-the-hill” approach, whereby all substitutes could still be offered, but if more than one got a majority vote, the one with the most votes would win, no matter what its position in the batting order.
Solomon was the Rules chairman at the time. (Shauna Rabb/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Rules Chairman Jerry Solomon (my boss at the time), resisted. In the first place, as a former Marine, he didn’t want to be known as the man who introduced a “queen-of-the-hill” game to Congress. More seriously, he thought it was wrong to let members get away with supporting multiple plans simply to appease different constituencies.
He proposed instead returning to the regular order whereby if an amendment in the nature of a substitute is adopted, the game is over — there would be no votes on any other substitutes listed in the special rule. He variously referred to this approach as “no free votes” and “one-and-done.” The leadership backed Solomon and that’s the way the game has been played over the past 20 years, even when the Democrats briefly controlled the House from 2007 to 2010.
That anti-monarchist chain was broken this year when House Republicans were torn between their deficit hawks and defense hawks. The latter group wanted $2 billion more for the anti-terrorism contingency fund (already budgeted at $94 billion). When the dueling hawks fought to standstill in the Budget Committee, the leadership finessed things by proposing a “queen-of-the-hill” approach (“most votes wins”) that would guarantee all substitutes a separate vote on the floor, even if an earlier substitute was adopted. The game of budget thrones was restored.
The two hawks’ substitutes were offered by Budget Chairman Tom Price of Georgia. They were preceded in order by substitutes from the Progressive Caucus, Congressional Black Caucus, Republican Study Committee and House Democratic Caucus. The special rule further stipulated that if more than one substitute is adopted with the same number of votes, the last one adopted would win (a whiff of kings-in-the-wings). The defense hawks’ substitute had the edge as the last one to be offered, and squeaked through by 11 votes (though on final passage it won by 29 votes, with just 17 Republicans defecting).
Meantime, the Senate was slogging through its budget resolution amendments in a vote-a-rama. That’s the process, after expiration of 50 hours of debate set by Budget Act rules, in which scores of remaining germane amendments are voted, one after another, en masse — which might be translated, erroneously but understandably, as, “one mess.” The real mess, however, awaits the two chambers’ attempts to reconcile their disparate budgets.
Don Wolfensberger is a resident scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.
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