Monday, March 21, 2005

Anything You Can Do, We Can Do Worse

I'm a week behind in posting my column, having been out of town last week. For those of you who want some background on this column, you can read the report on which it is based, called "Broken Promises: The Death of Deliberative Democracy" compiled by the House Rules Committee Minority Office, Hon. Louise M. Slaughter, Ranking Member. I've even got a chart, showing the decline of open rules under the Republicans, from page 13 of the report. I'll see if I can post it later today.

Next week: How to file a copy of your living will with Tom DeLay's office.

East Valley Tribune, Mar. 13, 2005

The principle guiding the current leadership of the U.S. House of Representatives is that if the Democrats did it a few times, the Republicans can do it all the time.

No legislative body will be perfect. Occasionally, to run the place, the majority will restrict debate or limit amendments. At session’s end, the majority will declare “emergencies” and rush bills to the floor.

But eventually there’s a qualitative difference if the majority cuts corners a majority of the time.

While in the minority, House Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier, R-Calif., fought procedures that limited debate and restricted the minority’s rights. Now, however, he’s in the majority, and deliberation and accountability don’t matter so much: Republicans “have had to do some of the things we criticized once…. I didn’t completely understand when I was in the minority.”

While those procedures that they found so terrible then are terribly useful now, Republicans aren’t just conveniently forgetting their prior criticisms of the Democrats. (Much less those brave 1994 promises about doing things better, like bringing 70 percent of bills to the floor under open rules.) By any fair standard, the GOP is far more oppressive than the Democrats ever were.

Whether it’s using “closed” and restrictive rules that bar amendments, or by spending increasingly more days on non-controversial “suspension” bills (naming post offices or congratulating sports teams -- 924 last session, a new modern-day record), or by reporting out most rules under “emergency” procedures or after late-night meetings, or by scheduling votes on major conference reports only hours after their release, the GOP majority has done its best to reduce the actual amount of deliberative democracy in the House to the barest minimum. And they’ve increased their abuse of power each year, to far higher levels than the beastly Democrats ever achieved.

According to statistics compiled by a former GOP staffer, during the 108th Congress (2003-04), the GOP used closed rules more than twice as often as did the Democrats during the 103rd (1993-94). For the 8 biggest pieces of legislation that session (such as Welfare Reform and Head Start reauthorization, the energy bill, and Medicare prescription drugs), the Rules Committee permitted only 7 Democratic amendments -- out of 162 proposed.

During 2003-04, the GOP adopted 60 percent of rules under “emergency” procedures avoiding the two days’ prior notice requirement. The Rules Committee reported 76 of those emergency rules after 8 pm at night, with 21 done at 7 am the next calendar day (under the fiction that it was still the previous “legislative” day). These “vampire Congress” hours only stifle participation, debate, and democracy.

But perhaps the most egregious abuse is the now-routine tactic of bringing House-Senate conference committee reports to a vote almost immediately. House rules normally require a three day “lay over” for conference reports to give people a chance to read the actual law. Instead, the Medicare drug benefit conference report -- 852 pages -- became available only 20 hours before the vote. The FY05 Omnibus Appropriation report (1,645 pages) came out 7 hours before the vote. Maybe you can read 235 pages of this stuff per hour, but most mortals can’t.

These procedural abuses have substantive results. The Medicare prescription drug report was filed at 1:17 am on Friday; the rule allowed for only 4 hours of debate; the 3-hour vote finally ended at 6:00 am Saturday. Naturally, this bill doesn’t do what it was supposed to do and won’t cost what it was supposed to cost. But these mistakes were foreordained by the undemocratic procedures GOP House leaders demanded.

Even Republicans like John Shadegg who voted against the bill went dutifully along with these procedures. They made these disasters inevitable, and they have to share the blame.

Like with term limits, which mattered only when Democrats held office, there’s no principle at work here, just power -- and as Lord Acton said, power corrupts.

If the Democrats actually had been this arrogant and undemocratic, The Tribune would be screaming loudly and constantly. But it’s not just about the hypocrisy of doing what the Democrats used to do; the GOP is doing far worse -- and worse procedures are yielding worse results.

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