The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Sunday, January 18, 2004

They killed Congress! You bastards! The GOP's legislative coup d'├ętat...

Now, my knowledge of the rules and procedures of the US Congress is, to be charitable, patchy and insubstantial. Through a glass darkly, as one might say - having just consumed the contents of said glass.

But there are one or two apprehensions of how things are done that I've more or less assumed were reliable. Like the absence of whipping, as known in the UK House of Commons, for instance; and a general tendency to laxness in voting discipline, especially in the Senate.

And then I read Robert Kuttner's piece, America as a One-Party State, in the American Prospect (February 1), and find that, like Rick in Casablanca, I have been misinformed. (I'm treating Kuttner's article pro tem as if it were 100% right, strictly for the sake of argument, and - practically - because I don't currently have the wherewithal to challenge him on most points. I factor in that more expert heads may well succeed in so doing.)

In the House, Tom DeLay is Joseph Cannon and Lyndon Johnson rolled into one. For instance,
The power to write legislation has been centralized in the House Republican leadership..Drastic revisions to bills approved by committee are characteristically added by the leadership, often late in the evening. Under the House rules, 48 hours are supposed to elapse before floor action. But in 2003, the leadership, 57 percent of the time, wrote rules declaring bills to be "emergency" measures, allowing then to be considered with as little as 30 minutes notice. On several measures, members literally did not know what they were voting for.

DeLay has used the rules process both to write new legislation that circumvents the hearing process and to all but eliminate floor amendments for Republicans and Democrats alike. The Rules Committee, controlled by the Republican leadership, writes a rule specifying the terms of debate for every bill that reaches the House floor...In 1995, Republicans pledged reform. Gerald Solomon, the new Republican chairman of the committee, explicitly promised that at least 70 percent of bills would come to the floor with rules permitting amendments. Instead, the proportion of bills prohibiting amendments has steadily increased, from 56 percent during the 104th Congress (1995-97) to 76 percent in 2003. This comparison actually understates the shift, because virtually all major bills now come to the floor with rules prohibiting amendments.

The GOP leadership manages to weed out all but pliable Democrats from conference committees; and uses conference committees to insert provisions not previously considered by either house, despite the House parliamentarian's ruling [1] forbidding such a proceeding.

DeLay has a charming little device called catch and release: GOP members known to oppose pending legislation must stand by; once the managers have the count, opponents surplus to requirements are permitted vote their consciences (or constituents' interests), an honour for which they take turns.

And how does DeLay get away with it? In particular,
Why is there no revolt of the Republican moderates? They are split along issue lines, too intimidated and too few to mount a serious challenge, and almost never vote as a bloc. The only House Republicans who openly challenge DeLay as a group are those to his right, almost all of whom voted against the Medicare bill as too expensive.

Kuttner's explanation for the lack of any media spotlight on DeLay's racket:
...Democrats are ambivalent about taking this issue to the country or to the press because many are convinced that nobody cares about "process" issues. The whole thing sounds like inside baseball, or worse, like losers whining. If they complain that big bad Tom DeLay keeps marginalizing them, as one senior House staffer puts it, "It just makes us look weak."

But the gentlemen of the press are big boys: they don't need Mother Pelosi's permission to examine the functioning of the Nation's legislature, surely? As he points out,
But when Joe Cannon, the Republican House speaker a century ago, played similar games, it was a very big deal indeed. Press investigation and popular outrage toppled him. Today's abuses are hidden in plain view, but the press doesn't connect the dots.

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that district gerrymandering by both parties has created a large majority of safe seats - perhaps 25 genuine swing seats up for grabs at each election. The GOP 229-205 majority requires the Dems to take 19 of 25 to take back control of the House.

Change of party control virtually impossible, so DeLay carries on doing what he does best.

Kuttner complains about the Senate (where things aren't quite as bad as in the House) and takes a pop at the other two branches. But lets the Fourth Estate off the hook far too easily. If what he says is true - and I've no reason right now to doubt it - something like a coup d'├ętat has been tried on the Federal legislative process. And if there has been a fuss in the media - and Lord knows, there have been no shortage of political fusses in the recent past on much more trivial issues than this [2] - about this coup, I haven't noticed it.

Now, I'd have to agree that covering this sort of topic is a hard sell. But technical matters of legislative procedure may be capable of salience: more recently than Joe Cannon's day, the shenanigans of the Southern Caucus during the 1950s arguably had an effect in reversing, to an extent, the tide of Negro support that had been flowing the Democrats' way since 1932 [3].

My guess is that is, just like anti-war sentiment last Spring, however strong voters' feelings might get about DeLay's Dictatorship (and one might have doubts there), the system does not permit such doubts to have traction in terms of election results. (You only have to run though one or two ideas for campaign spots on the issue for Dem House candidates to see the problem!)

So, all in all, given that the voters could do nothing with the information that their legislature's proceedings had been hijacked by the GOP, perhaps the greatest good of the greatest number is achieved by general ignorance?

Still don't think that excuses the hacks at all, though...

  1. And this has what status, exactly?

  2. Hat tip to Ol' Trent Lott there...

  3. A point I touched on as long ago as January 21 2003. Have studies been done to tie down this hypothesis, I wonder?

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