Where Congress is concerned, the old truism that “what goes around comes around” needs to be amended. Around here, it comes back around with a vengeance, creating a precedent for more vengeance the next time. In the Senate, Republicans blocked President Bill Clinton’s judicial nominations in the Judiciary Committee and now Democrats are filibustering President Bush’s nominees. When a Democrat next becomes president, Republicans surely will filibuster his (or her) nominees.
When Democrats ruled the House, as we’ve been reminded lately by The New Republic and The Washington Post, they treated Republicans with contempt, especially by passing closed rules which barred the GOP from offering amendments on the floor. Republicans bitterly complained, and justifiably so. In its cover piece this week on the current “oppressed” condition of House Democrats, TNR’s Michael Crowley unearthed a 1993 statement from Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) accusing the Democrats of “squelching and squashing the minority.” As the Post recalled, Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.) lamented in 1994, “All we are asking for is fair treatment on both sides of the aisle here.”
Under the leadership of then-Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), the oppressed Republicans first engaged in guerrilla warfare, then successfully assaulted and took over the citadel, vowing they’d reform the place — and be more fair to the minority. Then-Rep. Gerald Solomon (R-N.Y.), who chaired the Rules Committee after the 1994 GOP revolution, vowed that 70 percent of House bills would be considered under “open” rules permitting minority amendments.
Eight years after the takeover, Republicans are blocking Democratic amendments with as much authoritarian disdain as Democrats ever demonstrated — or more. And the autocrats in charge are the former complaining victims, Majority Leader DeLay and Rules Chairman Dreier. According to House Democrats, of the 45 rules reported by Dreier’s committee in the 108th Congress, only four have been “open,” permitting significant amendment.
That means Democrats have no opportunity to put proposals forward that might tempt Republican moderates or embarrass the majority. Closed rules ensure that the only chance Democrats have to argue for an alternative policy — for a mere 10 minutes — is on a final motion to recommit a bill to committee. But in 30 rules this year, the Democrats’ motions have been subject to points of order — such as, that they violate budget levels — while the rules waived points of order for the underlying GOP bills.
What’s more, the Democrats complain, 19 of the rules have been considered (and reported) as “emergency” measures to get around a two-day notice requirement for Rules Committee meetings. Dreier’s committee often meets on short notice and late in the day, causing ranking member Martin Frost (D-Texas) to call this the “Vampire Congress.” Dreier explains that he has a new understanding since his minority days for what it takes to run the House efficiently. He should rue the day that the GOP ever becomes the minority again.