Politics

Floor procedures tightened in pandemic’s wake

Bonnie Cash

As urgent times call for urgent measures, the House Rules Committee last Wednesday pulled the six-alarm emergency cord by sending six major bills to the House floor under a single special rule (a simple House resolution) that barred any and all floor amendments. Exempted from this ban were several leadership-blessed amendments that were self-executed to adoption in the rule, thereby avoiding the need for separate floor votes.

The six measures made in order by that closed amendment rule ran the gamut from policing reform, health care amendments and D.C. statehood, to credit scores, community reinvestment regulation disapproval and a ban on home evictions.

The sore thumb sticking out in this legislative six-pack was a health care bill originally reported from the Energy and Commerce Committee last March that was just 10 pages long. In its place was substituted a 154-page Rules Committee print that bundled another 23 bills under that same bill number —eight of which had been previously reported from committee as separate bills and 16 others that had not been reported by any committee.

When asked why members of his committee had not been allowed to participate in debating and amending those 16 bills, the chairman of the committee said Republicans would still have opposed the bills anyway. So much for the committee’s Democrats and deliberative lawmaking.  And, yes, that humongous substitute was one of the amendments adopted by self-executing language after being further modified by another self-executed amendment. (Don’t attempt to duplicate these complex procedural machinations at home.)

Overall, the omnibus special rule was a staggeringly bold approach, presumably necessitated by the pandemic shutdown that kept the House at bay since May 28 when it last voted on the floor and by remote proxies to address the national crises. (The Senate meantime has remained in session over that period without the use of proxy floor voting.) Since then, criticism within both parties mounted, reflecting the frustration and impatience of many over being held helpless while the pandemic and economic problems of their constituents escalated. Sensitive to these complaints, the Democratic leadership moved-up the reopening date from July 1 to June 25 and laid out an emergency agenda through the Rules Committee to put things back on track — and on a fast track at that.

Although the Rules Committee did not solicit amendments from members on any of the six bills, many members filed amendments anyway, only to be denied by the Rules majority the opportunity to offer them on the floor. The closed rule, encompassing all six measures was reported to the House late Wednesday on a party-line vote of 9-4 following an all-day hearing. Rules Committee members and other members appearing as witnesses participated remotely, most from various offices in the Capitol complex.

Given the fact that Republicans had been completely shut-out of the floor process, it’s not surprising the two votes on the special rule (the previous question motion and adoption) were adopted Thursday along party lines. The fact that those two votes alone consumed over an hour as opposed to the usual 15- and five minute votes on back-to-back questions can be attributed to the fact that members were rotated in and out of the chamber in groups of seven in order to abide by social-distancing precautions. That also helps to explain why the leadership wanted to limit the number of procedural and substantive votes as an efficiency and time saving device to two votes each on procedural rules and on every bill: the motion to recommit with instructions (a minority party motion) and the vote on final passage.

The toll these emergency restrictions is taking on our system of deliberative and representative democracy is enormous. Only time will tell whether this is only a temporary phenomenon or the beginning of a new normal. Yes, necessity is the mother of invention, but not all inventions work for the betterment of mankind

Don Wolfensberger is a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the 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.

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