Opening The Floor Debate

[ Posted Thursday, February 17th, 2011 – 17:36 UTC ]

Incoming Speakers of the House of Representatives always like to put their own personal stamp on things. Most of them make pledges to do things differently, and promise to make radical changes in the way the lower chamber of Congress does its business. Bold ideas are tried, but most of these usually fall by the wayside later (or become considerably dialed-back), as the status quo has its say.

John Boehner is no different -- he wants to run the House radically differently than it has for the better part of the last two decades. Of course, he's already had to compromise his principles for political expediency more than once, but he seems to be at least making a valid attempt to change the process of legislating in the House. Whether it'll turn out to be for the better, for the worse, or perhaps just "different than the way we have been doing things" remains to be seen, though.

During the past two years, several ideas were embraced by the Republican Party, by the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party, and by John Boehner himself. These mostly were reactions to things they didn't like about how Nancy Pelosi was running things while they were in the minority. Republicans complained about: bills that were long (pointing out the number of pages in each bill, as if length were some sort of measure of the intrinsic value of a bill); legislation brought to a vote without "allowing time to read it"; not being able to add hundreds of amendments to each bill; bills that were just dumped on the House floor for a vote, without going through hearings and the committee process; bills that dealt with more than one subject (preferring "standalone" bills); backroom deals cut without their input; budget reconciliation rules; and a whole host of other perceived injustices perpetrated upon them by their nemesis, Pelosi. For all I know, they probably blamed her every time it snowed, as well.

Well, Republicans have been in control of the House for a month and a half now. They've already seen fit to backtrack on many of these promises, to varying degrees. Speaker Boehner is holding firm on at least one major change in House policy, but after this week's budget marathon, it will be interesting to see if he backtracks on this promise as well.

Going through that list of slights, it's easy to see that things look different from the majority than when you're in the minority. I have no idea how long any of the Republican bills have been so far, but I'd be willing to bet the budget bills will (as they always do) have more than a few hundred pages to them. As for the "72 hour rule," and giving everyone time enough to read everything they vote on, here's an interesting article from the Washington Post on what has gone on yesterday and today in the House:

These were two in a series of more than a dozen votes that came every two minutes on Wednesday afternoon.

The votes came so quickly that some lawmakers appeared confused; many arched their necks to see the lighted board of votes - perhaps to find out how certain colleagues voted.

They've still got hundreds of amendments to vote on -- at the rate of one every two minutes. So much for sober, extended debate, eh?

Politics ruled the first few days of the House's current session, and Boehner caved in to pressure to make a few political points early, rather than stand for his principles. The bill to repeal "Obamacare" (as they call it) did not have a single hearing, and did not appear before a single committee -- it was just dumped on the House floor, with no possibility of amending it. Pure politics.

As for "standalone" bills, watch for this to go by the wayside in an enormously important upcoming fight over raising the debt ceiling. Republicans are chomping at the bit for this fight, because they think they can use it to hold President Obama and the Democrats hostage over even deeper cuts to the budget. In other words, they are about to do exactly what they decried Democrats for doing.

As for backroom deals cut without the minority party's influence, the Republicans have institutionalized this by allowing their committee chair on the budget to basically just write his own legislation as he sees fit, with no input from Democrats whatsoever. Even Democrats weren't that blatant about backroom backscratching.

And, later this year, I would bet my bottom dollar that Republicans are going to try to ram through all sorts of things by using budget reconciliation. It hasn't happened yet, but that's due to the calendar -- such maneuvers happen much later in the budgeting process, so it hasn't come up yet. Watch, in the 2012 budget Republicans draw up, how many subjects they'll put into the category of "can be passed using reconciliation" to see how they intend to use the same tactic they denounced last year.

To be fair, though, John Boehner has largely kept to one of his philosophical principles (after he played pure politics with the healthcare repeal, of course) -- allowing anyone (minority party included) to offer amendments on the House floor to important legislation. Last I checked, over 400 amendments had been filed for the continuing resolution debate which is happening right now. And Boehner has lost a few of these votes -- most notably on a second engine for a new fighter plane which the Pentagon says it does not need and Obama has said should be cut. Boehner wanted to keep the money in there (half a billion dollars this year alone), which isn't too surprising when you consider that a large part of the jobs involved are in his home state. His very own "Cornhusker Kickback" -- how ironic! But, true to his word, he allowed the amendment to cut the funds to come to a vote, and had to watch as a bipartisan majority voted the money down (the Senate, of course, may just stick the money back in, but even so...).

If Boehner continues to deliver on his promise to allow unlimited amendments, it will indeed change the dynamic in the House. There will be more votes, just on sheer numbers alone. This will lead to incredibly targeted amendments, as very specific and very focused political axes get ground by individual House members. It will lead to political gamesmanship on a scale not seen in quite some time, as members of both parties force the House to take a stand and actually vote on contentious issues (votes that, assumably, can be used against their opponents during the next campaign cycle). It may lead to outright mischief, by either Democrats or disgruntled Tea Party Republicans, as they attempt to overwhelm the system by offering perhaps thousands of amendments on a single bill (sort of a backhanded "filibuster," in a way).

Speaker Boehner will likely wind up dialing back his commitment to such an open process, to one degree or another. Some bill which faces a serious deadline may force him to rethink his rules. The Speaker is a very powerful job -- much more so than Senate Majority Leader. Sooner or later, the temptation for Boehner to wield that power (the way he did with the healthcare repeal bill) will probably become overwhelming.

But I have to admit (even if it does carry a begrudging flavor), that so far the new Boehner "open floor" policy has been interesting to observe. From interviews with him I heard before he began his term as Speaker, it seemed like he was philosophically determined to turn back the clock on some of the tactics in the House which had become the "new norm." Both parties are culpable in this -- Speaker Pelosi was merely paying Republicans back for practices dating back to Newt Gingrich's time in the job. It remains to be seen whether Boehner will continue his attempt at changing the way the House operates when it comes to open debates -- he's already gone back on many other Republican promises made (in the heat of denouncing Pelosi on the campaign trail last year). But, for the time being at least, the open nature of the debate currently going on in the House at least deserves mentioning for the change it represents.


-- Chris Weigant

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


2 Comments on “Opening The Floor Debate”

  1. [1] 
    Michale wrote:

    There are so many things that Republicans are doing now that Democrats did in their time, it's impossible to list them all...

    Just goes to prove what I have always said..

    Democrats and Republicans are simply two sides of the same corrupt and pathetic coin..


  2. [2] 
    dsws wrote:

    "... budget reconciliation. It hasn't happened yet, but that's due to the calendar -- such maneuvers happen much later in the budgeting process"

    That's what I thought. So you can hardly blame Democrats for not passing a budget, unless you go back to before Ted Kennedy died. The haven't had the votes, even if they could get unanimity within their caucus.

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