Democrats Can’t Have It Both Ways With MTR

Posted December 8, 2008 at 3:25pm

Change is in the air with a new president coming to town and newer, bigger Democratic majorities heading to Congress. In the most recent elections, the American people clearly expressed their desire for a new way of doing the people’s business. I, and my Republican colleagues, stand ready to work with the new president and the majority to find areas of agreement.

But where the Democrats allow this new spirit of change to take them remains an open question. Will they chart a new, more open path, or will they continue on the road of restricted debate, changing the rules again to stifle dissent?

Let’s face it: Process is boring. But as any student of history can tell you, process is substance. In their quest to gain the majority in 2006, the Democrats argued that a fair and open process was necessary and essential. They promised to do things differently than the Republicans did when we were in charge. How did they do? Looking back at the 110th Congress reveals a not-so-pretty picture.

As documented in “Wipeout: How the Democratic Majority Abandoned Its Promises of Openness and Civility,” a recent report issued by the Republican members of the House Rules Committee, the Democratic majority considered 24 percent more bills under closed rules than did the 109th Congress. Likewise, they considered less than half as many bills under open rules, gave the minority fewer opportunities to offer an alternative, and on average made in order significantly fewer amendments per bill. The bottom line is that the voices of the American people were shut out of the process more than they had been before the Democrats were in control.

With increased majorities on both sides of the Rotunda and a president of their own party in the White House, surely the Democrats are looking for ways to finally make good on their campaign promises of long ago. Unfortunately, a reading of the tea leaves doesn’t indicate this is the case. They recently commissioned a report from the Congressional Research Service looking for ways to change the rules of the House to limit the minority’s ability to even offer a motion to recommit. Simply put, they want to allow even less input than they did in their first two years in charge.

As inside baseball as it gets, the MTR has a long and storied history. The MTR gives a Member opposed to a bill (usually from the minority party) a final opportunity to amend that bill, or send it back to its committee of jurisdiction for further consideration or improvement. It’s true, as the CRS report states, that it has its roots in the British Parliament and has existed since the 1st Congress. Prior to 1909, it was used differently than it is today. It was then, during the famous revolt against the dictatorial Speaker and iron- fisted chairman of the Rules Committee, Joe Cannon (R-Ill.), that the MTR took on its modern relevance. It was altered with the stated purpose of giving “the minority the right … to have a vote upon its position upon great public questions.”

When the Republicans assumed control at the beginning of the 104th Congress, we changed the rules of the House and made the MTR a guarantee. We believed the minority, and the millions of voices it represents, deserved a guaranteed “bite at the apple” during floor debate. We never altered the minority’s ability to offer its MTR. We took our lumps and had the debates and the votes.

The Democrats apparently see things differently. After being on the laosing end of more than 20 MTRs, they want to change the rules of the House to remove the guarantee of the MTR, and possibly even restrict how it can be structured. They will make their case for this ill-advised change by saying the minority didn’t use the MTR as it should. But they cannot have it both ways. The majority cannot on one hand shut out more and more amendments and substitutes from the minority, and on the other decry the use of the MTR as inappropriate.

The reformers of 1909 had it right — the minority has a right to a vote and to have its voice heard. The question 100 years later is this: Will the Democratic majority preserve those rights or throw them out under the guise of “change?”

Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.) is the ranking member of the Rules Committee.