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October 13, 2015

Posts in "Wolfensberger"

September 30, 2015

Iran Review Moves Recall ‘Duck-and-Cover’ Days | Procedural Politics

Last May, in a rare display of bipartisanship, the House and Senate overwhelmingly approved a congressional review process for the Iran nuclear agreement — a process President Barack Obama initially said he didn’t want and didn’t need.

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September 8, 2015

Can Party Government Work in America? | Procedural Politics

In graduate school I wrote a paper titled, “The Deadlock of Democracy and Anglophilia in American Politics.” It was a review essay on James MacGregor Burns’s book, “The Deadlock of Democracy: Four Party Politics in America” (1963). His thesis was simple: Our system of government wasn’t working properly because there were four, not two, political parties vying for power — the presidential Republicans and Democrats, and the congressional Republicans and Democrats. The congressional parties, with their attendant special-interest groups, were tying the system in knots.

We need to look across the pond to our English forebears, Burns argued, and adopt their party government model in which a single party, headed by a party leader, sets and administers government policy, and the minority party opposes. If the majority does not carry through on its campaign promises or its policies fail, it will be held accountable by the electorate. That brings true accountability to government by holding office holders responsible for their party’s pledges.

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July 29, 2015

Congress Regulates Internal Speech for Good Reason | Procedural Politics

It is often noted there are two kinds of members in Congress: the showhorses and the workhorses. That’s probably an oversimplification, since most members consider themselves workhorses, but with a flair for show. Politics, after all, is a lot like show business, with public attention and appreciation focused on those actors who are able to entertain and project their roles in a convincing and effective manner. On Broadway, the payoff is in audience acclaim and good reviews. In Congress, it is in media attention and re-election.

However, it seems that more and more members are opting for the show ring over the work plough as Congress becomes increasingly polarized and legislative work is less valued and rewarded. This becomes more evident as presidential and congressional elections loom and members ramp up their publicity machines, both on and off the Hill, to set themselves apart from the rest. Frequently this involves running for Congress by running against it, especially when the public mood is strongly anti-Washington, as is now the case. It’s an old incumbent trick for hanging onto incumbency.

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July 23, 2015

Why Are Restrictive Rules Ratcheting Up? | Procedural Politics

One of the recurring, puzzling paradoxes in the House of Representatives is why new majorities, coming to power on pledges to restore openness and regular order, quickly revert to the ways of their predecessors and become even more restrictive in closing down the floor amendment process on important bills.

Proponents of partisan power politics readily explain why this way: “Because they can.” Former House Rules Chairman David Dreier, R-Calif., gave a more nuanced justification on numerous occasions, suggesting Republicans never fully appreciated when in the minority just how difficult it is to govern. Majority status brings with it new responsibilities to pass the party’s priority legislation in a timely and successful fashion, and that often entails severely restricting the amendment process on major legislation to avoid minority party obstruction and weakening or politically embarrassing amendments.

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July 7, 2015

Political Games Can Trigger Petard Self-Hoist | Procedural Politics

House Democrats are learning a basic lesson of procedural politics: Those who engage in political gamesmanship can sometimes be hoisted with their own petard (an explosive device used to breach doors and gates).

The recent imbroglio over Senate-passed trade legislation is a prime example. House Democrats openly defied the president’s request for both Trade Promotion Authority and Trade Adjustment Assistance by voting against both. They first succeeded by voting down the TAA title — a program they long championed for retraining workers displaced by trade. They then failed by eight votes to defeat the TPA portion that gives the president authority to negotiate trade agreements that can be put to an up-or-down vote in Congress. Their unsuccessful effort to blow up the entire package by torpedoing their own submarine left final disposition of the overall Senate amendment in a state of legislative limbo.

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June 4, 2015

Senate Trade Bill Prompts Floor Trades | Procedural Politics

The Senate trade promotion bill became a self-fulfilling prophecy in ways its sponsors probably didn’t anticipate — all before it could even pass the Senate. The trades made were legislative favors swapped on the floor for the support of senators otherwise threatening to bring the bill down. Step by step these legislative side payments accrued sufficient interest to move the bill forward and ultimately past the last 60-vote cloture threshold to final passage.

In Congress, politics is the art of the passable, and bargaining has always been a part of that process. For the trade bill that presented an especially tricky challenge since many of the favors sought would have invited a presidential veto if included as amendments to the bill. To overcome that obstacle the political odd couple of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and President Barack Obama combined forces to put the measure over the top through artful strategizing and persistent personal lobbying efforts, respectively.

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May 11, 2015

Congress Is Still Evolving, but to What? | Procedural Politics

Recently, I participated in a panel discussion on “The Evolving Congress” cosponsored by the Bipartisan Policy Center and National Capital Area Political Science Association. It was based on a book by that title written by a group of experts at the Congressional Research Service on its 100th anniversary. The panel had no problem agreeing that Congress has changed considerably since its inception. But there are still unresolved questions over just how and why it has evolved to what it is today, and what it might be evolving to.

CRS Senior Specialist Walter Oleszek, in his introductory chapter to the volume, offers the best explanation of what has happened and why: “Congress is an institution constantly in flux,” he writes. “The policy and political struggles among the elective units are a permanent fixture of the Nation’s constitutional system that continue to shape the evolution and work of Congress.”

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April 27, 2015

Were House and Senate Budgets Separated at Birth? | Procedural Politics

Sometimes it’s hard to believe House and Senate budget resolutions had the same birth parents back in 1974. They are different in so many ways: They look different, act different, and, yes, even weigh different (more on that later).

If you’ve been away from them for several years and only occasionally read about what they’ve been up to, you nod knowingly and sigh, “Oh, those budget kids will be kids.” You might be somewhat concerned that one of them, the Senate budget kid, has been missing in action four of the past five years. But then, lots of families have prodigal sons, and you figured he’d be back some day. And indeed, this year did seem to be a new day with both kids showing up on time for the family’s spring reunion.

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April 13, 2015

Congress Has an Overriding Problem With Iran Deal | Procedural Politics

(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Corker’s bill is reportedly one vote short of a veto-proof majority in the Senate. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

This week the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is slated to consider the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act introduced by the committee’s chairman, Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee. The bill requires the president to submit the final agreement to Congress for a 60-day review period. The administration strongly opposes the legislation on grounds the pact is an executive agreement between the U.S., Iran and the five other nations and does not require congressional approval.

Contrary to some shorthand press reports, the bill does not require Congress to approve the nuclear agreement for the sanctions relief to take effect, nor does it force Congress even to vote on the matter. It simply provides that any sanctions relief contained in the plan may go forward if Congress enacts a joint resolution favoring the agreement or fails to enact a joint resolution disapproving the plan during the review period. There are no action-forcing mechanisms or expedited procedures to require either a vote of approval or disapproval.

Congress may, in effect, take favorable action on the plan by inaction. Full story

March 30, 2015

House GOP Restores Budget Game of Thrones | Procedural Politics

When Republicans regained control of the House in 1995 after 40 years in the minority, they vowed to eliminate the Democrats’ “king-of-the-hill” process for voting on budget resolution substitutes.

Since 1982, the Democratic-controlled Rules Committee had been issuing special rules on budget resolutions that allowed for votes on substitute amendments by various factions, notwithstanding the disposition of a previous substitute. Under ordinary amending procedures, once an amendment in the nature of a substitute is adopted, no further amendments are allowed.

The “king-of-the-mountain” approach, as it was originally called, provided that if more than one substitute is adopted, the last one adopted prevails, even if it has a smaller majority. Not coincidentally, the last substitute to be offered would always be the Democratic budget reported by the Budget Committee. Full story

March 16, 2015

Cotton Balls Up Diplomatic Protocol With Letter | Procedural Politics

(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Cotton (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Senator Tom Cotton’s “open letter” to the leaders of Iran on negotiations over its nuclear program ran into a buzzsaw of criticism from the president, vice president, our negotiating partners and members of Congress from both parties. The main criticism: Senators should not thrust themselves directly into the middle of ongoing negotiations between the U.S. and other countries.

The Arkansas Republican and his 46 Senate Republican co-signers have been accused of everything from trying to blow up the negotiations and undermining the president to giving aid and comfort to the enemy and betraying the national interest. Full story

March 10, 2015

Lott-Daschle Reform Bars Bill-Blocking Actions | Procedural Politics

House Republicans painted themselves and the Senate into a corner by making Department of Homeland Security funding after Feb. 27 contingent on rolling back President Barack Obama’s unilateral immigration actions. Surely, they were fantasizing a corner with a hidden trap door and safe room.

Instead, a more realistic escape route appeared out of nowhere — a rope ladder thrown down by a federal district court judge in Texas who stayed the president’s 2014 immigration action pending disposition of legal challenges to it by 26 states. Since judicial appeals from the dueling orders could take months, the judge’s injunction freed Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky to propose a compromise: a clean DHS funding bill in return for separate consideration of a bill rescinding the president’s 2014 immigration order.

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February 24, 2015

Keystone Process Tells Tale of Two Houses | Procedural Politics

(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Boehner signs the Keystone bill. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Do you remember Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California promising last fall to return the new Congress to the regular order? The initial test came on the first major bill in the well of both houses, the Keystone XL Pipeline Act. Whereas the Senate produced a veritable gusher of amendments with all hands at the wellhead, the House reverted to a narrowly-constricted flow tube controlled by a few valve masters.

Identical House and Senate pipeline bills were introduced on the opening day of the new Congress by two North Dakota Republicans, Rep. Kevin Cramer and Sen. John Hoeven. Both measures were placed on a fast track to the floor the first week of the session. But that’s where the similarities ended. Full story

January 21, 2015

New Congresses Lead With Legislative Blitzes | Procedural Politics

Most Americans prejudged the new Congress a failure before it even began. According to a CNN/ORC poll taken in mid-December, only 37 percent think the 114th Congress will get more done than its predecessor while 62 percent think it will get less done or be no different. But they could be wrong.

Such negative assessments are understandable given divided party control of government and early pronouncements by the president and congressional leaders drawing lines in the sand over their differences. Oh, there will still be occasional rhetorical nods to the need to work together. But the three Cs of conciliation, cooperation and compromise have yielded for now to cold calculation, calcification and confrontation. Veto pens are being brandished quicker than bills inviting them can be introduced.

Given that, there is good reason to be skeptical about the prospects for the 114th Congress. The modern partisan era is different from the more bipartisan days of the mid-twentieth century. Parties are acting more like parties, and that injects more complexity and delay into the policymaking process. But that is not necessarily bad.

The first act of parties in any new Congress is to articulate their positions early, clearly and often. It is difficult to move forward purposefully until you first determine and announce exactly where you stand and in what direction you are inclined to move. If you arrive on the playing field without any goals, it is unlikely you will score any points.

We are now witnessing both political parties and branches staking-out their territory. It began on day one with majority Republicans in both chambers clearly enunciating their immediate legislative aims. House Democrats weighed-in early as well with their leader’s introduction of the Speaker salted with a multi-point Democratic policy agenda.

That was followed by two minority procedural motions during the rules debate aimed at bringing-up specific legislation within the month. Meantime, the president was pressing his policy proposals around the country in warm-up acts for Tuesday’s State of the Union address.

In the first two weeks of the session, House Republicans brought 13 unreported bills to the floor before committees were even fully organized. Most bills were warmed-up leftovers from the previous Congress that went nowhere in the Senate. All were considered under a closed or highly restrictive amendment process.

House Democrats did the same thing when they recaptured Congress in 2007, rushing to the floor unreported bills they had championed in the previous Congress. They had campaigned on a “Six for ’06” legislative platform otherwise known as “A New Direction for America.” It was a page right out of the House Republicans’ 1994 playbook when they campaigned on “A Contract with America” — a 10-point legislative platform they promised to bring to final floor votes within the first 100 days of the 104th Congress.

The main difference in 2007 was that House Democrats promised to bring their bills to final votes within the first 100 hours. They were able to do that by providing for consideration of five of their measures under a closed amendment process established in their opening day rules package. Republicans had set the precedent for that scenario in 1995 by providing in their rules package for an opening day, closed amendment vote on the Congressional Accountability Act.

Speaker Newt Gingrich’s House Republicans in 1995 paved the way for partisan legislative blitzes at the outset of new Congresses following electoral power shifts. Such a strategy requires quick and closed consideration of priority bills — hardly a showcase for the regular order.

The quick pick of low-hanging fruit can build momentum and confidence for the arduous task ahead of actual governing. Neither party wants to come away from this Congress empty-handed and face angry voters at the polls. Consequently, the 114th Congress will enact some significant laws over the next two years, albeit incremental rather than transformational. And that may be the most we can and should expect.

Don Wolfensberger is a resident scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.

The 114th: CQ Roll Call’s Guide to the New Congress

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January 5, 2015

Opening Day Hoopla Sets Optimistic Tone | Procedural Politics

(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

If the tone set on opening day could determine the success of Congress over the next two years, the scaffolding now encasing the Capitol dome would become a magical power grid of peace and harmony generating a steady source of national policy solutions.

When the opening bell summons the new Congress into session at noon, the House chamber vibrates with electricity as multitudes of members meld in a frenzy of hugs, handshakes, backslaps and laughter. The camaraderie and exchange of verbal olive branches between the speaker and minority leader can only instill hope in the scores of constituents cramming the galleries to watch their newly elected representatives be sworn in. Surely, they think, this portends a new day in our nation’s history. And they’re right: Each new Congress is a blank slate on which it can write its own history of successes and failures.

While this glorious spectacle of democratic renewal is always heartening, the tone set on opening day should not be mistaken for the tune that will eventually play-out. Yes, the founders called it a Congress, meaning “a coming together,” but they fully understood it would not be a harmonic convergence of views, goals and policies. Not only did they grasp that any democratically-elected institution would produce a clashing of interests, they purposely divided responsibilities among the branches to prevent a concentration of power in any one place. As Madison put it in Federalist 51, “ambition must be made to counteract ambition.”

The framers did not fully appreciate that in addition to the Constitution’s separation of powers and attendant checks and balances, political parties would emerge as an additional check on action. That has been especially evident under divided party government which has been the norm for 40 of the last 60 years.

Notwithstanding all the upbeat opening day bonhomie and hoopla, the parties go their separate ways on the two most important votes members will cast: the election of Speaker and the adoption of House rules for the new Congress. The former vote is a recognition that the Speaker, while historically serving as the neutral presiding officer of the House, has also been the majority party’s leader almost since parties first emerged.

The latter vote is a recognition that the majority party fashions rules that allow the will of a House majority eventually to prevail on legislation. Translated, that usually means the rules are designed to expedite consideration and adoption of the majority party’s legislative agenda.

Ironically, the debate on adopting rules for the new House has become a perfunctory slam-dunk, subject to just one-hour of debate and no amendments unless the minority happens to prevail on a procedural vote to commit the resolution with instructions to amend – which it never does.

George B. Galloway, in his 1962 Legislative Reference Service history of the House, recounts how, in the years after the Civil War, it was not unusual for a new House to spend several days debating and amending the rules package recommended by the Rules Committee. In that way, new members could learn the work ways of the institution while senior members could take their measure. That changed with the emergence of party governance in the 1890s and the takeover of the rules origination process by the majority party caucus before a Rules Committee is even appointed.

Those following opening day proceedings on C-SPAN may be baffled that the House chamber and galleries empty immediately after members are sworn-in by the Speaker. The extra television lights are extinguished, and only a handful of members remain in the dimly lit chamber to present and debate the resolution adopting rules for the new Congress. Everyone else has retreated to swearing-in receptions in members’ offices.

It is little consolation to know that the rules from the previous Congress are being re-adopted by reference in the rules resolution with just a few new tweaks. Even though those rules, developed over decades, provide for a “regular order” process of thoughtful, fair and orderly consideration of legislation, they are not self-executing. Instead they have been openly flouted for years through leadership-driven procedural suspensions, interventions and circumventions.

Unfortunately, most members today were not around three and four decades ago when the regular order was regularly observed. However, even if they remained in the chamber for the rules debate they would learn nothing about the old rules being brought forward. Most of the debate will focus instead on the minor new tweaks.

The House would be far better off to postpone consideration of the rules package until day two when all members can participate in an extended discussion of just what the regular order of rules is and why it is so important to learn and adhere to. Obviously, that will require a leadership led effort of reeducation and rededication of the House to a deliberative lawmaking process. But, in the final analysis, it may have as much to do with the reputation and legacy of the 114th Congress as the legislation it enacts.

Don Wolfensberger is a resident scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.

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