D.C. Voting Bill Motion Complied With House Rules

Posted April 11, 2007 at 4:21pm

In his March 28 Roll Call column, Norman Ornstein criticizes Republican Rep. Lamar Smith (Texas) for offering a legitimate motion to recommit to the D.C. voting bill. The motion was designed to allow residents of the District of Columbia to exercise their rights under the Second Amendment.

A Congressional scholar like Mr. Ornstein should understand that the Democratic majority writes the rules in the House of Representatives. While Mr. Ornstein implied that Republicans somehow skirted the rules to offer the amendment, the motion complied with all House rules, including those that require amendments to relate to the bills under consideration.

Now, what happened in this case? The Democrats wanted to add two new Representatives to the House. Naturally, that costs money. Unfortunately, they did not give a thought to that until they were about to bring the bill to the floor. Then — without any committee process, without any debate and in the middle of the night — they inserted an arcane tax provision. It would have exposed millions of unsuspecting, individual taxpayers across the country to thousands of dollars in interest and penalties because they might miss a 3/1,000th percent change in the withholding requirements. Republicans saw this tax-increase language only hours before the bill came to the floor. Strangely, Mr. Ornstein does not find this provision to be “extraneous” — indeed, he does not even mention it.

Mr. Ornstein’s “blame the victim” explanation neglects to mention that Democrats brought this bill to the floor without the opportunity for any amendment other than the motion to recommit. It also neglects to mention that the same rule that inserted the “pay-for” for the new seat also prohibited Republicans from striking this regressive change to the individual income tax. So, Mr. Ornstein’s view — that a nationwide tax increase is completely relevant to a bill extending voting rights to the residents of the District of Columbia, but a vindication of those same residents’ Second Amendment rights is not — leaves us baffled.

Mr. Ornstein’s germaneness concerns must be new. He did not complain in September 2005 when Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) successfully amended H.R. 3132, the Children’s Safety Act of 2005, with the text of the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act. Those two items were arguably less related than Mr. Smith’s amendment and the D.C. representation bill. Yet the amendment was germane under the same rules that Mr. Smith used in drafting his amendment.

The facts of this case aside, the record of the new majority is nothing to crow about: Of the 28 bills considered under rules so far in the 110th Congress, half have allowed no amendments whatsoever. The only opportunity for amendment afforded the minority was through the motion to recommit.

This should not come as a surprise. The motion to recommit became a right guaranteed to the minority party when Republicans gained control at the beginning of the 104th Congress, largely because of prior abuses by the Democratic majority. From the 99th to 103rd Congresses, the Democratic majority denied Republicans any kind of motion to recommit 47 times; they limited the recommit motion another 22 times. In contrast, the Republican majority never reported a rule denying or limiting the motion to recommit in the 12 years that we were in control.

Similarly, the last time the House changed the rule requiring germane amendments was 1822. In the interim, hundreds of pages of precedent have refined the standards of germaneness. Mr. Smith’s amendment did not blaze any new trails on germaneness. Rather, it relied on a long-standing precedent of measuring the amendment against the underlying bill.

If Mr. Ornstein is the institutionalist he claims to be, he should realize that the rules of the House are designed to protect the minority and should not be conditioned on the majority’s political concerns or their tolerance of the minority.

At the end of the day, those who write the rules must live by them.

Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) is the House Minority Whip; Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.) is the ranking member of the Rules Committee; and Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) is the ranking member of the Judiciary Committee.