Tensions Linger After Heated Pension Debate

Posted January 23, 2007 at 6:44pm

Even as House lawmakers unanimously approved a measure Tuesday to strip Members convicted of certain felonies of their federal pensions, tensions lingered in the chamber from a Monday evening dispute over procedural issues.

The House approved the Pension Forfeiture Act, 431-0, banning Members found guilty of crimes including bribery, embezzlement and fraud from receiving taxpayer-funded pensions.

Only hours before that unanimous passage, however, the House broke down in partisan debate as Republican lawmakers cried foul over Democratic efforts to make last-minute revisions to the legislation.

Republicans charged that they were not given time to review changes to the measure — including a provision delaying the act’s effective date until 2009 — made shortly before the bill was to come to the floor for limited debate.

“I think most Members of Congress think that if you’re convicted of a felony involving the abuse of your office, you ought to forfeit your pension,” said Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), who acknowledged that it is difficult to interest the public in alleged abuses of parliamentary procedures when legislation passes overwhelmingly on the floor.

“How they’ve done it, though, and how this bill has come to the floor is an abomination of the rules,” Boehner added. “And while, you know, nobody really knows what all the rules are, I think most people understand fairness.”

But House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) defended the Democratic leadership on Tuesday, asserting that the last-minute amendments were intended to match the House bill to a Senate-approved measure that would not take effect until 2009.

The Maryland lawmaker also asserted that the change moving the measure’s effective date was intended to ensure the bill’s constitutionality, conforming to the 27th Amendment, which prohibits Congress from changing the rate of pay for lawmakers currently in office without an intervening election.

“If you adversely affect their pension rights, you are adversely affecting their compensation,” Hoyer said, noting that he did not personally support the amendment — which was ultimately removed from the bill.

Despite that decision, however, Republicans continued criticism of the bill, specifically its placement on the House suspension calendar — an action that limits debate and is normally reserved for noncontroversial measures, such as the naming of post offices, and also prohibits Members from offering amendments on the House floor.

Republicans have made similar complaints in recent weeks over Democrats’ decision to circumvent regular order and committee hearings as the majority pushed through its “100 hours” agenda — a package of legislation including ethics and lobbying reforms, stem cell research and an increase to the federal minimum wage that Democrats touted in the 2006 elections.

Democrats have defended that decision, and Hoyer stated Tuesday that the pension bill, although not formally included in the “100 hours” agenda — which concluded last week — should be considered a portion of that package because it is an ethics provision.

House Democrats also called the Republicans’ complaints as disingenuous given the GOP majority’s behavior when the roles were reversed, noting that the broad support for the measure.

“On our worst day if we dreamed one up we could never come close to what they did,” House Rules Chairwoman Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) said of the complaints, which she decried “as phony as a six dollar bill.”

Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.) suggested the debate was the result of miscommunication between Republican and Democratic staff, as well as House and Senate lawmakers.

“By it’s nature this institution has a partisan flavor,” Hastings said. “Members generally are parochial, territorial and … desirous of having things their way. As you look forward you would hope there’s going to be more cooperation.”

But Hastings acknowledged that the chamber’s minority party, regardless of whether it is Democratic or Republican, is expected to raise procedural issues.

“The process arguments are always going to be raised by the minority,” Hastings said, and later added: “Republicans will look for every opportunity … to point out, according to them, the process is not working.”

Republican lawmakers acknowledged Tuesday that their complaints were not directed at the legislation itself.

“The entire essence of what happened last night was about procedure,” said Rep. John Shadegg (R-Ariz.), who noted that he “passionately” supports the bill, a version of which he authored in the 109th Congress.

“I think their Members recognize procedural fairness is an important part of the process. They should never have gone under martial law.” added Shadegg, who participated in the Monday debate and at one point tried — unsuccessfully — to have Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald’s (D-Calif.) words taken down after she called him “disingenuous.”

“One of my concerns is they keep moving the goal posts,” Shadegg said, asserting that Republicans, for now, must simply ”wait, see and keep the pressure on.”

Democratic leadership have vowed that the House will now return to regular order on legislation, but Hoyer added the new majority will not allow the floor schedule to become overrun by amendments.

“We want things to go regular order,” Hoyer said. “We want Republicans to have an opportunity to offer amendments in committee. The Rules Committee is going to allow amendments on the floor. I have told all of you. I said we were going to be fair, not stupid.

“I do not intend nor does Speaker Pelosi intend to simply set ourselves up and set a lot of our Members up for 30-second ads or 60-second ad amendments,” he added. “But we do intend to engage, involve and allow Republicans to have substantive opportunities as we consider legislation, but last night was unfortunate and the tempers got a little strained.”

Susan Davis contributed to this report.