Brookings has released a report written by Sarah Binder, Thomas Mann, Norman Ornstein and Molly Reynolds that reviews the performance of the 110th Congress and compares it to recent Republican-led congresses. To compare apples to apples, much of the report concentrates on the performance of the 110th compared to the 104th as both terms mark the ascendancy of a new partisan majority and the establishment of divided government.
The report is negative for the most part. Many of the positives of the 110th are faint praise comparisons with the era of Republican control.
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.
When the Republicans controlled the House of Representatives, they were criticized by many political scientists including Barbara Sinclair, Thomas Mann, and Norman Ornstein for attempting to completely shut the Democratic minority out of the legislative process. While many Democrats (including the President) have expressed a desire to be more engaging with the minority party, Politico reports that Democratic leaders are planning to strip the minority party of an obscure, yet important prerogative: the right to offer a motion to recommit legislation to its originating committee with instructions to amend the legislation and report it immediately back to the House for final consideration.
Although it rarely gets the attention that the sexier legislative procedures like the filibuster, the hold, or Calendar Wednesday, the motion to recommit (MTR) is provides an important opportunity for the minority party to participate meaningfully in the legislative process. Essentially, when a bill is passed, any opponent may make a motion to send the bill back to committee with some suggested amendments. But because the language of the motion may require the committee “to report forthwith,” the MTR is essentially an opportunity for the minority to offer substantive amendments (but ones that may be again amended by the majority). So even if the Rule Committee doesn’t allow it to offer any formal amendments to the legislation, the minority will still have an opportunity to at least force a vote on one of its amendments, presumably one with the greatest importance and/or chance of peeling off enough moderate majority-party voters for passage. Even though few MTRs pass, the threat that they might pass or at least force some unpopular votes generates some leverage for the views of the minority party. As the Politico article points out, it was the threat of an embarrassing vote on an MTR that pressured the Democratic majority to vote to suspend the moratorium on offshore oil drilling.
It is also important to note that the MTR does not just protect the minority party, but it strengthens moderates of the majority party by giving them a credible threat to vote with the minority on the MTR if their concerns are not addressed in the bill. So the Democratic leadership’s attempt to eliminate the MTR is also an attempt to shift the balance of power in a progressive direction. Moderates should undoubtedly oppose the rule change if they think bipartisan governance has a chance to work, but, equally certainly, they will be under intense pressure from Democratic leaders to support it.
I think further efforts to foreclose minority participation are likely to be counterproductive. The House of Representatives suffered greatly as an institution due to the heavy-handedness of Republican leadership, and it would be a shame if the new boss was the same as the old boss.
P.S. I should note that there is some academic controversy as to just how much leverage the MTR gives to the minority party. Those who are interested should see this article by Keith Krehbiel and Adam Meirowitz and this one by Jason Roberts.