Debate Over Motion to Recommit About Norms, Not Rules

Posted April 17, 2007 at 4:46pm

I had a slew of worthy topics to pick from for this week’s column, yet all were pushed aside to respond to the Guest Observer by GOP Reps. Roy Blunt (Mo.), David Dreier (Calif.) and Lamar Smith (Texas) in the April 12 edition of Roll Call (“D.C. Voting Bill Motion Complied With House Rules”). But I won’t entirely be taking exception to them. [IMGCAP(1)]

Let me start where I agree with them. They wrote, “[T]he 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 afforded the minority was through the motion to recommit.”

This record is nothing to crow about. So far, the Democrats have fallen way short of the goal of an open Congress with a restored regular order and a real deliberative process. The core point of my March 28 column with which they took issue was to warn the Democrats that if they follow through with House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer’s (D-Md.) suggestion that they might find occasions to extend key votes well beyond the 15-minute norm, that would be a truly serious breach of their promise to mend the broken branch.

The second point — the object of their piece — was Smith’s motion to recommit to the Washington, D.C., voting bill, which would have forced a new gun law on the District. Blunt, Dreier and Smith go to great pains to say the motion to recommit was legitimate; that it, as the column title suggested, complied with House rules. Here I also agree with them. I never suggested the motion to recommit did not.

The point of my two paragraphs on this issue had to do not with rules but norms. Here is the best example of the difference: It was within the rules to hold the 15-minute Medicare prescription drug vote open for three hours, but it was a gross violation of the norms of the House. Showing he does not really understand the difference, Dreier, at the time, said he saw no problem with keeping a vote open for days.

I noted in my column: “A minority party deserves the right to be heard and to have alternatives considered, but with those rights come responsibilities. If the minority uses the opportunity to offer amendments to exploit cynically the opening for political purposes — through ‘gotcha’ amendments designed to foster 30-second attack ads against vulnerable majority lawmakers, or through poison-pill alternatives designed only to scuttle a bill, not to offer a real alternative — it soon will lose its moral high ground for objecting to majority restrictions on debate and amendments.”

So far in this Congress, Republicans are not showing the seriousness of purpose that should be the bedrock of the minority. On the most important bill of the year, the supplemental appropriation that passed by only six votes, they did not even offer an alternative, despite the fact that they had ripped the bill.

Note the phrase “soon will lose its moral high ground.” The minority has the right to demand some role in debate and amendments on the lion’s share of bills. I want Democrats routinely to allow amendments and meaningful votes on the motions to recommit. If they fail to do so, they will deserve condemnation roundly. If Hoyer is serious about his pledge to urge Democrats to vote against motions to recommit, the condemnation will start immediately. But if Republicans from the get-go use their opportunities not to offer real alternatives but to create political embarrassment, they will give the Democrats an excuse to fail to live up to their promises. This is a two-way street.

Democrats have time to make the process an open and fair one. But absent change they soon enough will be on a slippery slope down, losing whatever moral high ground they had from the regularly outrageous ruptures in the regular order that characterized the 109th Congress.

Blunt, Dreier and Smith laud their own initiative of a motion to recommit when their party took over in 1995. But it was in fact a sham, which, with few exceptions, was framed by the Republican leadership as a procedural vote that demanded straight party voting against without regard to the substance — and which got the whip organization mobilized to defeat.

As the three lawmakers note, the Democrats did get Rep. John Conyers’ (D-Mich.) hate crimes motion to recommit added to the Children’s Safety Act, which, as I understand it, the GOP leaders who had been embarrassed by its success on the House floor subsequently removed from the final package. Does it fit the same admonishment? Hardly. It came after a sustained period of abuse of the Judiciary Committee Democrats by then-Chairman Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), including one particularly outrageous and unprecedented act just a few months before the floor debate on the bill.

In the committee report on the Child Interstate Abortion Notification Act, the chairman slipped in language mischaracterizing Democrats’ amendments as ones exempting “sexual predators” from the bill. Weeks after that embarrassment — which the leadership ultimately repudiated — Sensenbrenner let the minority hold a hearing and call witnesses — beginning at 8 a.m. — and when he didn’t like the tenor of the hearing, he abruptly pulled the plug by turning off the microphones and walking out the door.

If Democrats pull similar shenanigans, the Republicans will deserve to offer all the gotcha amendments in their arsenal. Let’s hope instead we get a new Congressional world, with motions to recommit that are genuine minority alternatives, as well as amendments that are allowed and substantive.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.