Sunday, January 21, 2007

The Parliamentarian

John McClelland at My Little Corner of Democracy brought to our attention a video highlighting the dispute between the Democrats and Republicans last week over the "closed rule" debate in Congress.

Our congressional neighbors, Joe Barton (R-TX) and Michael Burgess (R-TX) were involved in a parliamentary lambasting by the acting Speaker of their House session, Barney Frank (D-MA) . Patrick McHenry (R-NC) was the main culprit in all of this, but it is a good example of why a representative might want to learn Robert's Rules of Order before attempting to work a debate. And just remember the past actions of the chair do not matter! :-) Watch the video by clicking here.

The controversy the Republicans were trying to capitalize on related to the fact that the minimum wage bill exempted the U.S. territory American Samoa-- a move that some suggest would benefit Starkist, a company located in the San Francisco district of Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Now we all know Barney Frank isn't known for being shy about stating his mind, (and a first-rate mind at that) but there's a little backstory that you should be aware of when you watch this that goes a long way toward explaining the, well, let's say relish, with which he dishes out this particular parliamentary lesson.

You see, before the Democrats took over Congress, the Republicans had made a mockery of parliamentary rule. From the Rolling Stone's article, The Worst Congress Ever....

.....The Republicans who control this Congress are revolutionaries, and they have brought their revolutionary vision for the House and Senate quite unpleasantly to fruition. In the past six years they have castrated the political minority..... They aimed far lower than any other Congress has ever aimed, and they nailed their target.

The article goes on to detail some of the more outrageous moves by Republicans to silence the Democratic minority. Public hearings held only long enough for a five minute photo op before being gaveled closed. Votes held open long past the established time in order to browbeat or bribe some reluctant holdout. The location of conference meetings to iron out differences between House and Senate versions of a bill never shared with the Democrats.
In one legendary incident, Rep. Charles Rangel went searching for a secret conference being held by Thomas. When he found the room where Republicans closeted themselves, he knocked and knocked on the door, but no one answered. A House aide compares the scene to the famous "Land Shark" skit from Saturday Night Live, with everyone hiding behind the door afraid to make a sound. "Rangel was the land shark, I guess," the aide jokes. But the real punch line came when Thomas finally opened the door. "This meeting," he informed Rangel, "is only open to the coalition of the willing."
And then there was that controversial Patriot Act.

The measure was originally crafted in classic bipartisan fashion in the Judiciary Committee, where it passed by a vote of thirty-six to zero, with famed liberals like Barney Frank and Jerrold Nadler saying aye. But when the bill was sent to the Rules Committee, the Republicans simply chucked the approved bill and replaced it with a new, far more repressive version, apparently written at the direction of then-Attorney General John Ashcroft.

"They just rewrote the whole bill," says Rep. James McGovern, a minority member of the Rules Committee. "All that committee work was just for show."

The Patriot Act was again in the news due to recent firings of U.S. Attorneys General by the Bush administration. Apparently, one of the little presents slipped into the act by Ashcroft was a rule allowing the forced resignation of an attorney, not due to any misconduct. In fact, the firings seemed to have targeted several attorneys, including one from Texas, who were aggressive in their pursuit of corruption. Under a new provision of the Patriot Act, the administration can appoint their own U.S. Attorney General to these vacancies for an indefinite period of time, thereby bypassing the Senate confirmation process. Something tells me Congressman Frank might have had an issue with that.

And what about those "closed rule" debates? Well, every Congress in recent memory has used them, some more than others.
To ensure that Democrats can't alter any of the last-minute changes, Republicans have overseen a monstrous increase in the number of "closed" rules -- bills that go to the floor for a vote without any possibility of amendment. This tactic undercuts the very essence of democracy: In a bicameral system, allowing bills to be debated openly is the only way that the minority can have a real impact, by offering amendments to legislation drafted by the majority.

In 1977, when Democrats held a majority in the House, eighty-five percent of all bills were open to amendment. But by 1994, the last year Democrats ran the House, that number had dropped to thirty percent -- and Republicans were seriously pissed. "You know what the closed rule means," Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart of Florida thundered on the House floor. "It means no discussion, no amendments. That is profoundly undemocratic." When Republicans took control of the House, they vowed to throw off the gag rules imposed by Democrats. On opening day of the 104th Congress, then-Rules Committee chairman Gerald Solomon announced his intention to institute free debate on the floor. "Instead of having seventy percent closed rules," he declared, "we are going to have seventy percent open and unrestricted rules."

How has Solomon fared? Of the 111 rules introduced in the first session of this Congress, only twelve were open. Of those, eleven were appropriations bills, which are traditionally open. That left just one open vote -- H. Res. 255, the Federal Deposit Insurance Reform Act of 2005.

In the second session of this Congress? Not a single open rule, outside of appropriation votes. Under the Republicans, amendable bills have been a genuine Washington rarity, the upside-down eight-leafed clover of legislative politics.
So the next time you see Pete Sessions or Joe Barton whining about how unfair it is that the minority party can't offer an amendment on the floor of the house, or some other criticism about the current rules of debate, remember who wrote the playbook.

1 comment:

Bradley said...

I watched the video and I think it's pretty funny... not to gloat or anything, but after the way they treated Democrats when they were in the minority, I don't know why they expect anything nobler when they've been delegated to the minority role.