My post yesterday on the Democratic leadership’s reform of the motion to recommit turns out to be somewhat misleading, albeit in a way consistent with my original argument. The change that the House adopted yesterday is somewhat more subtle than the one suggested by my post (my fault for not reading the proposed rules changes that were posted on the House Rules Committee website).
The actual rule change eliminated the opportunity for the minority to make a motion to recommit (MTR) a bill with amendments to committee with instructions to report promptly. The right of the minority to instruct the committee to report forthwith was retained. The difference is that the promptly instruction removes the bill from the floor for committee consideration quite possibly permanently (and therefore kills the bill) while the forthwith instruction keeps the bill on the floor where the amended proposal is then voted on for final passage immediately.
The Democratic leadership argued that this change was necessary because the promptly MTRs were killing legislation not only because of the delays caused by pulling the bill from the floor but also because committees often did not want to report the amended legislation. Moreover, they argued that many such MTRs were poorly drafted and/or were simply symbolic campaign fodder.
Nevertheless, many of my reservations about the rules change remain. If as the Democratic leadership claims that the promptly MTRs are an effective tool of the minority, the reform still circumscribes the role of Republicans and moderate Democrats in the legislative process. The distinction that the Democratic leadership made about constructive and obstructive roles in the legislative process is opaque if not inconsistent. The threat to kill a bill is about the greatest negotiating leverage a minority can have to make constructive changes to legislation. If too many bills were killed by promptly MTRs, perhaps it is because the Democratic leadership failed to recognize and accept that leverage.
I also have questions as to whether the reform will have its intended effect. First, the Democratic leaders have other tools at their disposal to mitigate the effects of MTRs to report back promptly. As Jason Roberts points out in the piece I linked to, an MTR is subject to amendment. It seems that all the Democratic leadership needed to do was propose an amendment to the MTR striking “promptly” and inserting “forthwith.” If their protests about the nature of the Republican chicanery are true, such an amendment would pass. Second, forthwith MTRs can probably kill just as many bills. If the problem with promptly MTRs is that committees will not want to report the amended bill, will not it also be the case that the leadership will want to pull many of the successful forthwith MTRs from the floor?
Ultimately, my bottom line is the same. The solution to excessive partisanship in the House is not to tolerate increased concentration of authority within the majority party leadership.
P.S. Special thanks to Keith Krehbiel for helping me navigating the parliamentary thicket.