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House Republicans' Constitutional Ignorance

[ Posted Wednesday, March 30th, 2011 – 16:13 UTC ]

The Tea Party Republicans in the House of Representatives are supposed to -- according to their own statements -- absolutely revere the United States Constitution. They even opened their current congressional session by reading the whole text of the document aloud (or, at least, the non-embarrassing parts of it). So it's a little surprising that they appear not to understand one of the bedrock ideas enshrined within the Constitution -- how a bill becomes a law. House Republican leaders have announced they'll be voting on a bill this Friday (charmingly entitled the "Government Shutdown Prevention Act"). This bill reportedly contains a piece of legislative fantasy within it -- that the House of Representatives can declare something to be the "law of the land" without any input or action from either the Senate or President Obama.

From the Washington Post blog which brought this to my attention:

As negotiations on funding the federal government continue in fits and starts ahead of an April 8 deadline, House Republican leaders on Wednesday announced that they plan to pressure the Senate by voting Friday on a measure that they have termed the "Government Shutdown Prevention Act."

"What this bill says is it reiterates again the deadline, and that the Senate should act before the deadline, and that's what the American people are expecting," House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said Wednesday morning at a news conference with other House Republican leaders. "The bill then says if the Senate does not act, then H.R. 1 [the House-passed bill that cuts $61 billion] will be the law of the land. In addition to that, it says that if all else fails, and the Senate brings about a shutdown, then members should not get their pay."

While that bit about cutting off congressional paychecks is something virtually everyone can support, the rest of it is patent nonsense. The idea of a "Government Shutdown Prevention Act" is actually part of the official Republican Party platform (since at least 2008), but that doesn't mean it gets some sort of free pass on its way to becoming law. Because we have rules for how this is supposed to happen, outside of the Fantasyland which Republicans appear to be residing in these days. Let's review this process, shall we?

Here is the relevant text, from the Constitution's Article I, Section 7:

Every bill which shall have passed the House of Representatives and the Senate, shall, before it become a law, be presented to the President of the United States...

Since this is apparently too vague for House Republicans, allow me to simplify things even further. Here is the process a bill must take to become law:

(1.) Bill passes House.
(2.) The exact same bill passes Senate.
(3.) Bill is signed by the president.
(4.) Bill becomes law.

There is an alternate method, of course. It goes as follows:

(1.) Bill passes House.
(2.) The exact same bill passes Senate.
(3.) Bill is vetoed by the president.
(4.) Bill passes House with two-thirds majority.
(5.) Bill passes Senate with two-thirds majority.
(6.) Bill becomes law, without the president's signature.

However, the Republicans in the House -- who seem to be stealing the logic of the Underpants Gnomes from South Park -- have come up with their own novel interpretation of the process:

(1.) Bill passes House.
(2.) ?
(3.) Bill becomes law.

This is the sheerest of nonsense, of course. If it weren't so transparently silly, it'd be properly called a "constitutional crisis," or perhaps even a "coup attempt." But the silliness of pretending that there is some sort of magical shortcut a bill can take to become law when only one house of Congress has passed it is so painfully obvious that the only response such an action deserves is a hearty belly laugh.

The Republicans are in serious disarray over the budget negotiations. The Washington Post is also reporting today that the Republican leadership is exploring passing budget bills by jettisoning their Tea Party members and reaching out to Blue Dog Democrats. The Tea Party Republicans are in no mood to utter the word "compromise" in any way, shape, or form -- and some of them are actually relishing the prospect of a government shutdown. These House Republicans apparently have forgotten what happened the last time this took place, which isn't too surprising when you consider that one of the loudest voices calling for a shutdown is none other than the architect of the previous impasse, Newt Gingrich himself.

But Newt isn't alone. In fact, there is a Tea Party rally scheduled for tomorrow on Capitol Hill. The Tea Party rank and file are going to turn out a crowd in order to stiffen the backbone of the Tea Party Republicans they elected to the House. And the Tea Party voters aren't interested in passing any sort of compromise with Democrats, President Obama, the Senate, or even the House Republican leadership. They want even more drastic action, and most definitely not any sort of "appeasement" or backing down. A government shutdown would be just dandy with them.

The Republican leadership is caught between a rock and hard place. They are terrified of the Republican primary election power the Tea Partiers represent, but they also are the ones who remember the blame laid on Republicans after Newt's government shutdown. Republican leaders know full well that their party will suffer politically if some sort of compromise can't be reached before next Friday. But, at the same time, they want to appear as fire-breathing as possible to the Tea Partiers.

There are all sorts of grandstanding moves and red-meat rhetoric Republicans have available to them in order to thread this needle with their base voters. But, unfortunately for them (and fortunately for the rest of us), simply declaring a bill that has only passed the House as "the law of the land" is not a valid route which is open to them. The Constitution allows dozens of ways a bill can be derailed on its way to becoming law -- parliamentary maneuvers, arcane rules, presidential vetoes, etc. -- but it offers no possible way for a bill to magically become a law just because one house "says so." There simply is no "I'm Holding My Breath Until I Turn Blue" clause in the Constitution.

You'd think that Republicans would be aware of this. After all, it seems every single one of them carries around a copy of the Constitution's text in their pocket these days. Perhaps they should take it out and read it more often. Or perhaps Democrats should make a very vocal push to get the "I'm Just A Bill" video (from the Schoolhouse Rock era) back on the public airwaves. It certainly couldn't hurt to try.


-- Chris Weigant


Cross-posted at Business Insider
Cross-posted at The Huffington Post

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


7 Comments on “House Republicans' Constitutional Ignorance”

  1. [1] 
    Osborne Ink wrote:

    They commit the crime they constantly see committed.

  2. [2] 
    dsws wrote:

    There are a couple of ways an action of just the House might affect the law without the Senate and president going along with it. The House can pass a non-binding resolution expressing the opinion of the House that the law already is thus-and-so. Courts then are free to use the resolution as part of the legislative history, or to ignore it. Alternatively, Congress can pass a law saying that if X happens then provision A goes into effect. They can do this with X being something relevant, but they can also do it with X being 'the House passes a resolution declaring that the moon is made of cheese'. However, neither of those applies in this case as far as I can tell. It sounds like an ordinary bill, that would have to go through the normal process.

    "While that bit about cutting off congressional paychecks is something virtually everyone can support"

    Yay, let's make members of Congress even more dependent on money from special interests. But according to the WaPo item it applies to the president too, and that's unconstitutional.

    "The President shall, at stated Times, receive for his Services, a Compensation, which shall neither be encreased nor diminished during the Period for which he shall have been elected"
    Article II section 1

  3. [3] 
    Michale wrote:

    Once again, you nailed it CW...

    This GOP Congress is as do-nothing as the last Congress was...

    But, at least the GOP seems to be operating under the DO NO HARM mantra....

    So far...

    Or perhaps Democrats should make a very vocal push to get the "I'm Just A Bill" video (from the Schoolhouse Rock era) back on the public airwaves.

    "Oh how I hope and pray that I will, but today I am still just a bill"

    The sad thing is THAT is from memory! :D


  4. [4] 
    akadjian wrote:

    The Government Shutdown Prevention Act

    Wow. You've just got to admire the chutzpah. Who could be for the government shutdown? Not us. You see, we tried to pass a law to prevent it. What's in the law? Nevermind that. Nothing to see here folks. Look away.

    By the way ... wouldn't this proposed law have to pass the Senate? And be signed by the President? :)


  5. [5] 
    Michale wrote:

    Who could be for the government shutdown?

    Top Democrats are on record as hoping for a shut down as well...


  6. [6] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    dsws -

    That is a fairly novel interpretation, but I can't refute it. Constitutional crises are actually built in to the whole constitutional setup. There are vague overlaps, and often times it just takes some chutzpah from one branch or another to set a precedent. I'm reminded of Andy Jackson's question as to what army the Supreme Court was going to use to enforce their decision against him....

    As for the presidential thing, as far as I can see, they can have it both ways, kind of. Congress could cut off the power to write a paycheck to the president, but whenever the money started flowing again I think by the Constitution they'd owe him all his back pay.

    As for the XXVIIth Amendment, it would be interesting to see whether Congress is even allowed to cut their own pay off...

    Like I said, there are plenty of crises built in...



  7. [7] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Michale -

    Actually, to be fair, this Congress is a lot like other Congresses. The House passes all sorts of wacky ideas, and they go to die an ignoble death in the Senate. But then, that's the way it's kind of set up, I guess. Pelosi passed like 400 bills that Harry Reid never got around to, for instance, and that was Dem v. Dem....

    I don't believe you have any quotes from top Dems though, "hoping" for a shutdown, unless you define that term awfully liberally (pun intended).


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