Partisanship rules panel

Despite Democratic promises that the House Rules Committee would operate much differently in the new majority, it is as partisan as ever.

Furious with how the powerful panel has been directed this year, all four Republican members of the Rules Committee took to the floor Tuesday night to  air their grievances publicly.

During his speech, ranking member David Dreier (R-Calif.) lambasted Chairwoman Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) and Democratic leadership for failing to deliver on promises of an open, bipartisan legislative environment.

“I have to say that when we look at this record over the past nine months, it is, to me, a very, very sad commentary that every single American has had their rights undermined on dealing with substantive public policy issues,” Dreier said, noting that a new website launched by the minority members would help  document perceived abuses of power and procedure.

While it can be argued that Tuesday’s floor speeches were just the latest in a series of public spats between the majority and the minority on the Rules Committee — where bickering has been a constant for decades — some members say that the atmosphere is sinking to new lows.

Rep. James McGovern (D-Mass.), a committee member, laid the blame on both sides of the aisle.

“Look, I think it’s fair to say that we could be a better majority, but they could also be a better minority,” McGovern said. “Republicans have tried to use the amendment process as a filibuster. If that is their tactic then we have no other choice than to structure the rules.”

Longtime members, such as former ethics committee Chairman Doc HastingsRichard (Doc) Norman HastingsCongress just resolved a 20-year debate over Neolithic remains Boehner hires new press secretary GOP plots new course on Endangered Species Act reform MORE (R-Wash.), expressed concern that the conduct of members in the Rules Committee could begin to make a large impact on the House as a whole through the denial of minority input and the rejection of amendments offered by the minority.

Panel member Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) on Tuesday night cited a recent example: Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.) was not permitted to enter the committee room when he was late to file his second-degree amendment, which is an amendment to an amendment.

Caught in the crossfire are the panel’s four freshmen, several of whom went directly from contentious races to the House’s pressure cooker.

“It’s not really my style,” said freshman Rep. Peter WelchPeter Francis WelchDems unlikely to subpoena Bolton Democratic candidates gear up for a dramatic Super Tuesday A disaster for diplomacy and the Zionist dream MORE (D-Vt.). “I just find some of the internal arguing a mystery to me.”

Welch said he sometimes feels as though he is a part of two Congresses, one in the committee room and the other on the floor of the House, though he added he largely enjoys working on the panel for its attention to process and detail.

He praised Slaughter’s leadership of the committee and said she fulfills the major requirement: to keep legislation moving through her committee and onto the floor.

Rep. Michael Arcuri (D-N.Y.), a former prosecutor who is used to heated debates, said, “What is troubling is that regardless of how good an idea is, there generally is [dissent]” and partisan posturing.

Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Fla.) said her former role as a local legislator prepared her well for the committee’s climate. “I come from local government … Unfortunately, my local county commission on which I served was noted for its personal attacks and dysfunction. I think I was elected because my constituents saw I could rise above that.

“So the Rules Committee is quite tame compared to where I came from.”

Upon her appointment to the head of the Rules Committee, Slaughter’s hopes were high for a more bipartisan panel.
“I am going to work to restore civility, responsibility and accountability to the political process in the House of Representatives,” she said in an interview with The Buffalo News late last year.

“We intend to put that olive branch out there and keep it out,” Slaughter said early this year, according to the Gannett News Service. “We want to make sure that good legislation gets to the floor, whether it’s from Democrats or Republicans. In the past, the Rules Committee has been used to kill some good legislation. We’re not going to do that anymore.”

Months later, incivility thrives. Tempers still flare, the now-Republican minority feels slighted and the Democratic majority is accused of having the heavy hand.

Last week, Republicans found an unlikely champion in Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who expressed frustration on the House floor with Slaughter’s decision to close a rule on a bill reported out of his committee, despite his request that the rule remain open for amendments.

“I told her I was unhappy and that I thought it was a bad idea,” he said last week. “She said she thought it was a good idea.”

In August, an exchange between committee member Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas) and Slaughter turned ugly after the Texas lawmaker was cut off and told his speaking time was being given to another member seeking recognition, according to Sessions.

Sessions then stormed from the room.

“She no longer has the capacity to serve as chair[woman] of the committee,” he said later that afternoon.

From a historical perspective, Slaughter is merely following precedent. Lawmakers have been leaving the tiny room angrily for generations, irritated by partisan rulings and a perception of actions that benefit only one side of the aisle.

After one such partisan happening in the 1980s, then-House Minority Leader Bob Michel (R-Ill.) fumed, “They screwed us” as he strode angrily down the tiled hall, according to John M. Barry’s book The Ambition and the Power.

In Walter J. Oleszek’s A Pre-Twentieth Century Look at the House Committee on Rules, he quotes then-Speaker Jim Wright (D-Texas) as saying, “The Rules Committee is an agent of the leadership. .. The rules of the House, if one understands how to employ them, permit a majority to work its will on legislation rather than allow it to be bottled up and stymied.”

The Rules Committee is often referred to as the Speaker’s committee, and the majority members outnumber the minority 9-4. So it is not a surprise that there is a high level of partisan sniping, and reports of the clashes between Slaughter and Dreier are numerous, lending credence to the widely held contention that all majorities are alike. Democrats are quick to mention that the GOP majority in the House called late-night meetings and routinely denied amendments.

Asked whether the venomous relationship between Dreier and Slaughter — she once referred to him as a “p—-k” in a New York publication — was a large part of the problem, a top Democrat who requested anonymity said yes.

Republican members have repeatedly accused Slaughter of dismissing their concerns as “whining,” and they have decried her management style as rude and caustic, frequently cutting off GOP members.

“The Rules Committee should be judged by the actions of the House and the strong record of bipartisan legislation that has passed the House,” a Democratic Rules Committee staffer said.

While the bitterness runs deep for many on the committee, McGovern remains hopeful that a truce can be struck between the warring political factions, adding that he believed Slaughter was doing well at her post.

“I’m an optimistic guy. I know a lot of Republicans who do not like the tactics of their party,” he said.