March 11, 2005

"It Wasn't My Fault!"

I meant to post this two days ago, but somehow it sat languishing around in a Word file. Anyway, those who check this site every two seconds—a horde, I know—will notice I wrote up a brief and churlish post about the Democrats' Slaughter report (PDF) on House Republican abuses, but then quickly deleted it. (Like taking a chess move back after lifting your finger.) This report is crucial, House Republicans really have made a mockery of good government, and Slaughter deserves more publicity for her efforts.

Anyway, the thrust of the report is stuff many people have noted before: the Republican-dominated House Rules Committee won't allow amendments on an increasingly large number of bills (essentially taking away the ability to debate and modify legislation); huge 1,000 page bills get thrust before Congress' eyes with a few hours to read before voting; the House spends more time debating points on traffic lights than serious matters; and the conference committees seriously abuse their power to modify bills in ways no one really wanted. (Read a non-PDF executive summary of the report here.) Outrage, outrage, outrage, but also old hat and somewhat obscure. (I mean, Sam Rosenfeld loves diving into this stuff, but my eyes usually just glaze over.)

Anyway, there's one larger problem raised by the report that may be of more general interest. Yes, this House rules weaseling isn't fair to Democrats who can get absolutely no hearing for their views or policies. But what's even more harmful to American democracy, I think, is the fact that the no-amendments-on-bills norm has essentially killed all accountability for Republicans in the House. Just ask Republican Rep. David Dreier, who railed against this stuff way back in 1993:
What does the ability to offer an amendment have to do with accountability? If a Member has the power to offer an amendment, he can no longer claim to support one thing, but then say he was blocked in his effort to make a change in the law. In addition, with more floor votes on more clear issues, Members will be forced to take clear positions with their votes.
Indeed. Basically, if you're a House Republican, you could vote for a horrendous bill—say, the Medicare prescription act—that's deeply unpopular with your constituents, many of whom are old people that don't like getting screwed over. But at all the town hall meetings and whatnot, you could protest that you tried to add this amendment or that, but were blocked by the leadership. Blame it on the leadership! Then you promise to do better next time around, insist that your intentions, like Brutus', are honorable, and cruise your way to re-election. It's quite the scam.

Meanwhile, Democrats can't introduce amendments that force you to take a stand. Rep. Rosa DeLauro (or whoever) wants to introduce an amendment allowing re-importation of drugs from Canada. Hugely popular, but Republicans hate it. So if this amendment comes to the floor, some poor House Republican will be forced to vote against it, and then have to go back home and explain to Granny Fran why he is so strongly in favor of her paying higher prices to treat arthritis. Not a fun way to spend an afternoon! So it's much easier to just block the amendment and have everyone pretend that they might, in fact, be okay with re-importation. Y'know. They'd have to think about it.

Now I'm not a Congressional reporter, but it would be fun to try to find instances of this actually happening. A House Republican or two (or fifty) going back to his district and saying he tried to modify X bill that he voted for, but the House Leadership wouldn't let him. Boo-hoo. Ah, time to fire up Nexis...
-- Brad Plumer 3:00 PM || ||