When a young man’s fancy turns to parliamentary procedure


As we get down to the health care endgame, America is getting to learn all kinds of fun things about the joy of parliamentary procedure. Most of the learning has been on the Senate side so far — fun lessons on unanimous consent and cloture and reconciliation and the Byrd Rule that have entertained us all. We’ve learned so much about the many ways in which the Senate is structured to give way too much power to the minority party — or even to a single senator.

In all this, however, we’ve neglected the House. And we shouldn’t! After all, while the Senate has long been in the business of giving the minority party the power to stop business from happening, the House has long been in the business of ignoring the minority party altogether. In the Senate, rules are arcane, often based on a handshake, and designed to thwart the will of the majority. But in the House, what the majority says goes — period.

We get to the House because the Democratic leadership is in final preparations for passing health care. And that means setting up the rules for the debate on final passage of the Senate bill, and on passage for the reconciliation sidecar. Unlike the Senate, where amendments are unlimited and debate has to be cut off by a supermajority, the House’s rules for debate vary from bill to bill, based on the actions of the House Committee on Rules, which sets the rules for debate, subject to agreement by the body.

In practice, this means the Rules Committee can set up debate almost any way they want — and they do. This leads to grousing by the minority, of course, because the Rules Committee rarely allows amendments to bills that would be either embarrassing for the majority.

The Chair of the Rules Committee, Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., has floated an idea for the rules for the final health care votes, and they make some sense from a parliamentary standpoint: a simple, up-or-down vote on the reconciliation sidecar package and the Senate bill, en bloc, with perhaps another bill for the Stupak fig leaf if needed. One vote, winner takes all.

The way you accomplish this, according to Slaughter, is to vote on the reconciliation sidecar bill, and to, by rule, make passage of the sidecar bill automatically cause the Senate bill to be passed. This has some salutary effects for the House, mainly that there is no delay in passage — the reconciliation bill is hurtling toward the Senate at the same time the Senate bill is heading for the President. If the Senate acts swiftly, both can be signed simultaneously.

Of course, the GOP is already up in arms about this. The blog for House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Tanning Booth, hyperventilates thus:

The Slaughter Solution is a plan by Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY), the Democratic chair of the powerful House Rules Committee and a key ally of Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), to get the health care legislation through the House without an actual vote on the Senate-passed health care bill. You see, Democratic leaders currently lack the votes needed to pass the Senate health care bill through the House. Under Slaughter’s scheme, Democratic leaders will overcome this problem by simply “deeming” the Senate bill passed in the House — without an actual vote by members of the House.

Of course, that simply isn’t true. Passing the bill will require an actual vote by members of the House. Technically, the vote would be on the sidecar — but nobody is dumb enough to think that, say, Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Your Uterus, is going to be confused, and accidentally vote for the reconciliation package when he actually opposed the bill. And while the usual suspects are whining about how this proves the House is undemocratic, quite the opposite is the case.

Central to Slaughter’s proposed rule is that it will require a majority vote. A majority of the House will have to agree to the rule. And a majority of the House will be required to vote for the combined bill, knowing full well, in advance, that this is the way the rules work. In short, Slaughter’s rule simply turns a two-step process into a one-step process.

Now, you can argue that this is making up the rules as you go along — but the House has long allowed the Rules Committee to make up the rules as they go along. It’s the whole People’s House, responsive to the whims of America thing that the House is known for. The House operates to get things done.

If we are to accept that the filibuster is a longstanding, traditional Senate practice, central to its role as a deliberative, thoughtful body, we need to accept that this is, too. The House is putting together rules that a majority of its members will agree to. Nothing’s more democratic than that.