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House bundling is bad for deliberation

Greg Nash

“Bundling” in colonial America seems a curious and quaint custom when viewed in the rearview mirror of contemporary society.  It was the practice in which courting couples spent the night together in bed, fully clothed, usually in the woman’s parents’ home. Think of it as a dress rehearsal for marriage.

Today the term has a considerably different connotation in the House of Representatives. It has become a parliamentary practice whereby amendments, bills, motions, and votes are lumped together to save time and promote efficiency — all with the not so surprising effect of sowing confusion: “What is it, again, that we’re voting on?”

The practice first emerged in the 1980s when the presiding officer in the House was given authority to postpone and cluster votes on all amendments in the Committee of the Whole on which recorded votes had been requested. A full 15-minute vote was allowed on the first amendment, with five-minute votes for each subsequent amendment.

Some in the minority protested at the time about this disconnect between debate on the merits of a proposition and the final vote on it. But that objection gradually faded away as members became inured to the convenience of it all. The practice of postponing and bundling amendment votes spilled over onto committee markup rules, completing the deliberative disconnect between arguments for and against amendments and the votes on them.

The practice was subsequently extended to non-controversial bills considered under the suspension of the rules process which provides for 40-minutes of debate, allows for no amendments, and requires a two-thirds vote for passage. The presiding officer was again given authority to postpone and cluster votes on all measures on which rollcall votes were ordered.

Suspensions were originally debated only on the first and third Mondays of the month. But that was gradually expanded over time to three days each week; and now, under special pandemic rules, on any day of the week. There are usually 10 or more bills considered under suspension each day.

This year, after Republicans began threatening rollcall votes on most suspensions, the House voted in a special rule to give the majority leader authority to offer a motion to pass multiple pending suspensions bills with a single vote. Think: one vote fits all. For instance, on Monday, July 20, the House voted on 24 suspension bills. Majority Leader Steny Hoyer offered a motion that bundled them all into a single vote that easily cleared the two-thirds threshold for suspensions, 319-105.        Another innovation of the new millennium is to bundle more than one bill in a single rule resolution from the Rules Committee that sets the conditions for debate and amendment on a bill. In previous times, even if the Rules Committee considered several bills on the same day, it reported separate special rules for each.     Now, with the bundling of two or more measures in a single rule, the House must juggle and debate, all in one hour’s time — whether to accept an often mixed bag of closed, no amendment procedures, along with some structured procedures allowing specified amendments — all in a single vote.

Finally, probably one of the most important constitutional prerogatives of the House is to originate money bills — both for taxes and spending.  Previously, a dozen annual appropriations bills reported by the full Appropriations Committee were brought to the floor individually and considered under an open amendment process. Today, especially during the pandemic, multiple regular appropriations bills are being bundled into a single, mini-bus bill, either with no amendments allowed or only a designated few. On July 27, seven of the 12 annual money bills were incorporated in the Labor-HHS-Education appropriations bill (H.R. 4502), even though the other six had been separately reported by the committee. 

Members filed over 700 amendments with the Rules Committee on the mini-bus, of which 228 were made in order — 50 percent by Democrats, 32 percent by Republicans, and 18 percent bipartisan. Under the special rule, Appropriations Committee Chair Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) was given authority to bundle multiple amendments for purposes of a single vote, which she did on several occasions. En bloc amendment #2, for instance, combined 34 such amendments and was adopted, 220-203.

Yes, all these complaints about the evisceration of regular process sound like the nostalgic rants of a procedural purist, and to that I plead guilty, but with cause. The earlier practice of separate and sequential debates and votes on amendments and bills was designed to ensure that thoughtful consideration and decisions were made in the most coherent, open and contiguous fashion possible. The more debates and votes are disconnected, bundled, and even glommed into a single, lump-sum vote, the more members are left to confusedly respond in a Pavlovian manner to the thumbs-up or thumbs-down signals from their leaders.

If there is one similarity between today’s House bundling and colonial era home bundling it is this: both depend for success on trust in the dark.

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.  

Tags Bundling Rosa DeLauro Steny Hoyer

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