House Democrats make habit of voting on legislation that doesn’t change any laws

For four legislative weeks the House has held votes on nonbinding resolutions used for messaging

Rep. Colin Allred, D-Texas, center, is the sponsor of the House’s latest nonbinding resolution, a measure condemning the Trump administration for arguing in federal court that the entire 2010 health care law should be overturned. He is pictured with Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., left, and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., right at a rally on the matter on Tuesday outside the Supreme Court. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

House Democrats are forming a nonbinding habit. For four legislative weeks in a row, the new majority has held votes on resolutions that do not carry the force of law and are designed simply to send a message.

A Roll Call analysis found that roughly one out of every five votes the House has taken this year while the government has been open have been on nonbinding measures.

The latest such vote came Wednesday on a resolution objecting to the Trump administration’s stance in the Texas v. United States case that the entire 2010 health care law should be struck down. That follows a vote last week on a resolution opposing the administration’s move to ban transgender people from serving in the military.

While sprinkled into the floor schedule alongside several marquee bills from Democrats’ “For the People” agenda — which would change laws if the Senate were inclined to take them up or President Donald Trump were willing to sign them — the trend toward nonbinding votes shows that in many ways, Democrats are still in campaign mode.

Often nonbinding resolutions that make a “sense of the House” statement about where members stand on a particular issue are a tool the majority party — in this case, Democrats — uses to force the minority to go on record on a matter they want to highlight in political ads and debates.

For example, Democrats are considering bringing a resolution to the floor that would put Republicans on record on Trump’s threat to shut down legal points of entry at the southern U.S. border.

Sometimes nonbinding resolutions are used to show that both parties are united on an issue. That was the case in the previous two legislative weeks.

Last month the House took a unanimous but nonbinding vote to express its view that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s full report should be released to Congress and the public. A week before that, the House overwhelmingly voted to take a stand against anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and other forms of hate.

By the numbers

The Roll Call analysis looked at the 44 roll call votes the House has taken on legislation (not counting procedural, rule or amendment votes) since the 35-day partial government shutdown ended Jan. 25.

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It did not count measures that were approved by voice vote or legislation passed during the shutdown, since the vast majority of those votes were various Democratic attempts to reopen the government and not reflective of their agenda and the normal course of House business.

The analysis found that seven, or 16 percent, of the 44 votes were on nonbinding resolutions. 

When removing the 30 votes that were conducted under suspension of the rules — a fast-track process typically reserved for uncontroversial, lower-priority legislation — that portion of nonbinding votes increases to 21 percent.

Three of the 14 votes on legislation brought to the floor under normal rules were on nonbinding resolutions: the measure calling for release of the full Mueller report and the resolutions objecting to the administration’s stances on transgender troops and the health care lawsuit.

‘What we believe’

Nonbinding resolutions do not contain any language to change any laws or make new ones. Those votes, Democrats acknowledge, are simply designed to send a message.

“Telling the American people what we believe and what we think ought to be done,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said Tuesday when asked what Democrats accomplish by voting on resolutions that don’t carry the weight of the law.

Other Democrats echoed his explanation. 

“It sends a message to the American public where we stand and how we honor one another as fellow citizens and making sure that everybody has the same rights as everyone else,” said Arizona Rep. Tom O’Halleran, co-chair of the Blue Dog Coalition, a group of fiscally conservative Democrats.

O’Halleran said “it’s extremely important” that Democrats balance those nonbinding messaging votes with bills that actually update laws, and he thinks they’re doing a good job of that.

“I don’t think it’s cutting into our ability to address the key priorities of America,” he said.

Rep. Ro Khanna, first vice chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, described the nonbinding votes as an expression of “the moral voice of the American people,” with each member’s vote representing the broader population of their districts.

“That’s particularly important in these times, with the president not being consistent with many basic American principles,” the California Democrat said. “So it’s a separate branch of government saying, ‘No, actually we want to tell you what we think America is all about.’”

Some of the resolutions serve as a precursor for binding legislation the majority plans to offer later. The resolution on the Texas case, for example, will be followed by floor action soon on a package of bills Democrats are moving through committees that they say is designed to lower health care costs while shoring up protections for pre-existing conditions. 

“There’s a lot of resolutions that are nonbinding — whether it’s the Green New Deal or whatever the case may be — but they carry with it the impact of the ideas and what you’re going to continue to put forward in the Congress as well,” Connecticut Rep. John Larson said, noting it’s part of building a case for more tangible legislation. 

Republican protest

Republicans have called Democrats out for pushing so many nonbinding votes, and one has decided to start personally protesting them. 

Freshman Rep. Anthony Gonzalez voted “present” Wednesday on the resolution objecting to the administration’s stance on the 2010 health care law and said he plans to vote that way on every nonbinding messaging vote this Congress.

“Democratic leadership in Washington is more focused on passing political messaging resolutions that make no actual change in law,” the Ohio Republican said in a statement. “I voted ‘present’ today and will continue to do so in this Congress as long as Democratic leadership continues wasting time at the expense of the American taxpayer.”

Rep. Tom Cole, ranking member of the Rules Committee, said the uptick in nonbinding resolutions suggests Democrats don’t have much of an actual legislative agenda.

“They’re not passing very much, and what they are passing is, like, DOA in the United States Senate,” the Oklahoma Republican said. “At some point we hope they wake up and decide that they would like to have some accomplishments to run on in addition — maybe then we can get to infrastructure or prescription drugs, something we can work on together.”

If Democrats don’t start working to get more substantive bills signed into law, “that will become one of the great Republican themes” of the 2020 campaign as they try to win back the House, Cole said.

“What did they do with their majority?” he said, asking the question that would lead many GOP political ads. “Right now, not a lot.”

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