Procedural politics: What just happened with the coronavirus bill?

The procedural peregrinations of the $2.2 trillion emergency spending bill were dizzying to say the least; downright mind-boggling to be more accurate.

To begin, the Senate acted first on the stimulus package, notwithstanding the constitutional mandate and House precedents that require revenue and appropriations bills to originate in the House. That requirement was circumvented by the Senate taking up a minor 16-page House-passed tax bill and substituting the bill’s language in its entirely with the 800-plus-page emergency spending measure.

The original House bill (H.R. 748), titled the “Middle Class Health Benefits Tax Repeal Act,” was introduced by Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Conn.) in January 2019. It would repeal the excise tax on high-cost employer-sponsored healthcare coverage, the so-called “Cadillac tax” in the Affordable Care Act. By May, the bill had picked-up some 367 House co-sponsors, more than enough to qualify for placement on the new House Consensus Calendar (which requires at least 290 co-sponsors).

In July 2019, Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal (D-Mass.) called the bill up under a suspension of House rules, a procedure which allows for 40 minutes of debate, no amendments, and requires a two-thirds vote for passage. The measure passed handily, 419 to 6, and was sent to the Senate.

In the Senate H.R. 748 lay dormant until Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) seized on the bill as the vehicle to be hijacked for the stimulus package. After two Democratic filibusters and hours of bargaining, bickering and dickering, a bipartisan agreement on McConnell’s amendment in the nature of a substitute was reached with House and Senate Democrats and the White House. The bill was then taken up on March 25 and passed unanimously, 96 to 0.

While House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) originally hoped to pass the bill by unanimous consent to spare forcing members back to the Capitol from their districts, it became apparent there was enough grumbling from both parties that a vote would be needed. Members were given a day to return to Washington.

It was still not clear whether a quorum of 216 members would materialize (there are currently five vacancies in the House). Nevertheless, on Friday morning, March 27, at 9 a.m., Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) called up by unanimous consent a special rule, coincidentally numbered H. Res. 911, that provided for a vote on a motion to concur in the Senate amendment to H.R. 748 after just three hours of debate.

Over the course of that debate dozens of members came to the floor to voice their support for the measure, most being allocated just one minute or less to speak. As is the custom, the two party leaders, Pelosi and Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) gave the wrap-up speeches for as long as they wished to speak.

Pelosi at one point turned to beckon to the galleries, where many members were encouraged to sit to maintain COVID-19 distancing guidelines. She in effect urged members watching from their offices to come now, saying the sooner they got there, the sooner she would stop talking.

Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) had vowed to force a House vote, stating, “I came here to make sure our republic doesn’t die by unanimous consent.” When the chair put the vote on concurring in the Senate amendment and announced the motion was agreed to by voice vote, Massie asked for a recorded vote.

The chair then requested those members wanting a recorded vote to rise. Under House rules, 44 members’ support (shown by standing) is required to force a roll call vote. The chair announced that an insufficient number of members had risen, therefore a recorded vote was not ordered. Massie objected to the vote on the ground that a quorum was not present. The chair immediately announced that a quorum was indeed present (apparently having done a pre-count), and that the Senate amendment was adopted. President Trump signed the measure into law later that day.

The episode confirms that when our country is under serious threat from whatever source, Congress can move expeditiously to address the crisis. This is not the Schoolhouse Rock version of “I’m just a Bill.” No formal committee action was taken on the emergency bill – starting with Rep. Courtney’s minor tax bill which ballooned into the ultimate omnibus spending and tax relief bill.

It wasn’t exactly an immaculate conception. Dozens of members and staff from the relevant committees and leadership had worked tirelessly for days to put together a bill that secured widespread support. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin proved a consummate dealmaker to ensure White House backing in the end. It may not be the textbook way to legislate but sometimes it’s the only way.

Don Wolfensberger is a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson center and Bipartisan Policy Center, former staff director of the House Rules Committee, and author of “Changing Cultures in Congress: From Fair Play to Power Plays.” The views expressed are solely his own.

Tags Coronavirus COVID-19 Donald Trump Joe Courtney Kevin McCarthy Mitch McConnell Nancy Pelosi Richard Neal Steny Hoyer Steven Mnuchin Thomas Massie

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