Roll Call: Latest News on Capitol Hill, Congress, Politics and Elections
December 19, 2014

Posts in "Wolfensberger"

December 9, 2014

Democrats Resurrect Call for Remote Voting | Procedural Politics

briefing024 0911141 445x296 Democrats Resurrect Call for Remote Voting | Procedural Politics

Some members were outraged Duckworth was denied a proxy vote. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Republicans may think they put proxy voting in its grave when they changed House rules in 1995 to ban it in committees. But the issue resurfaced last month when a dispute arose in the Democratic Caucus over Illinois Rep. Tammy Duckworth’s request to vote by proxy in caucus elections because she was about to give birth to her first child.

Three months ago another Democrat, Rep. Eric Swalwell of California urged the Rules Committee to put forward a new House rule permitting members to cast their floor votes electronically from their districts on non-controversial bills early in the week.

Some younger members are so attuned to high-tech solutions in their daily lives that they are beginning to think democratic decision-making can be carried-out more efficiently using electronic joy sticks. Why should elected representatives need to be in a particular place at a certain time to vote when they can more easily decide the matter remotely? What better way to eliminate hyper-partisan debates than to keep members out of each others’ faces? Full story

December 1, 2014

Time to Strike a Fair Balance on Floor Amendments | Procedural Politics

The minority party in the House perennially complains it is treated unfairly when it comes to offering floor amendments. On some legislation it is not allowed to offer any amendments. That has been the case regardless of which party controls the House, and it’s gotten worse with each Congress dating back to the early 1990s.

The majority responds that governing such a large body is difficult but it tries to be both fair and efficient while advancing the majority’s legislative agenda. On bills of supreme importance to the majority, closed amendment rules are more and more common. On bills of lesser importance, structured rules are reported allowing only those amendments printed in the Rules Committee report. Completely open amendment rules are rare nowadays, confined mostly to appropriations bills. That can lead to a seemingly endless string of limitation amendments offered primarily by fiscal and policy conservatives.

So, what’s the real problem: too many amendments, too few, too much partisan gamesmanship, or too few actual policy debates over alternatives? The answer, as my wise grandfather would say (in the slightly different context of which kind of pie he wanted for dessert) is: “a little of each.”

I had occasion to re-examine this recently when I ran across an intriguing preliminary study by University of Miami political scientist (and friend), Gregory Koger (found here). His research, covering the 111th Congress through first session of this 113th Congress, reveals that minority party members actually offer more amendments on which roll call votes are taken than do majority party members. For the years 2009 through 2013, he found 1,038 House minority party amendments (including motions to recommit with instructions—the first in a two-step process to consider a final minority amendment) for 62.5 percent of total amendment roll calls. The majority party offered 622 such amendments or 37.5 percent of the total.

In a completely fair and open system those findings make sense because reported bills are majority party products, and the minority consequently has more reason to use the floor to offer all the amendments it lost in committee. But, since the minority complains that the majority increasingly restricts minority amendment rights, something could be amiss here.

I looked at this from a slightly different angle than Koger. I tallied all the amendments the House Rules Committee made in order to bills under special rules over the last three Congresses (2009-2014) without regard to whether they were subject to a roll call vote. My data shows the majority giving itself 1,204 amendments (45 percent), the minority 1,275 (48 percent), with 184 amendments (7 percent), bipartisan (see data here).

I have not factored-in either motions to recommit (which are not direct amendments) or amendments offered under open rules (which the majority does not control).

Interestingly, if you break this down by Congress, the Democratic-controlled 111th Congress allowed minority Republicans only 336 amendments (38 percent) while giving its own majority members 551 amendments (62 percent). Majority Republicans, on the other hand, in the 112th and 113th Congresses allowed 939 minority Democratic amendments (53 percent), their own GOP colleagues just 653 amendments (37 percent), and bipartisan amendment sponsors the remaining 10 percent.

Before you conclude that Republican majorities are more fair than Democratic majorities in allocating floor amendments, whoa back! There’s an anomaly cracker in my soup. In this 113th Congress, to date, majority Republicans have set an all-time record for the most closed amendment rules –67 which is 47 percent of all rules granted. That far surpasses the previous percentage high of 36 percent closed rules in both the Republican 112th and Democratic 110th Congresses.

It’s long past time for both parties to reverse this undemocratic trend of shutting-out free and (presumably) equal representatives from full participation in the legislative process. As the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Commission on Political Reform has recommended, the best way to ensure greater member involvement in a fair yet manageable floor process is through more modified open rules that require pre-printing of amendments in the Record and impose an overall time limit on their consideration.

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.

November 10, 2014

Lame-Duck Sessions Don’t Hatch Procedural Quackery | Procedural Politics

reid002 110714 445x295 Lame Duck Sessions Dont Hatch Procedural Quackery | Procedural Politics

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid talks with Don Stewart, spokesman for presumed Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in the Capitol. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Lame-duck sessions of Congress are those that occur after an election and before the new Congress. The lame ducks, of course, are those members who will not be returning in the next Congress due to retirement, defeat or running for other office. Oh, they still get paid and are still expected to vote (and most do). But, they have less incentive to show up regularly or vote the party line. That throws an element of uncertainty into lame-duck sessions and is why leaders would prefer to avoid them altogether. Nowadays, however, they are all but impossible to avoid given an appropriations process infected by an unchained malady looping in an unfinished symphony. 

Counting the current lame-duck session, there have only been 20 such sessions (out of 40 possible) since 1935 when the 20th amendment to the Constitution took effect.  That amendment changed the date for commencement of Congress to January 3, eliminating routine lame-duck “short sessions” between early December and early March.  Nine of the 20 lame ducks occurred in this and the preceding eight Congresses.  In all but three, Congress was forced to return after an election due in part to an “incomplete” on its appropriations report card. The three exceptions were 1998 for impeachment, 2008 for the economic meltdown, and 2012 for the fiscal cliff. This year Congress enacted none of its regular appropriations bills before the election recess, forcing government by continuing resolution through Dec. 11 and a lame-duck session beginning this week.

While presidents and an assortment of interest groups have long lists of items they would like a lame-duck session to consider, leaders prefer confining the agenda to “must pass” legislation: appropriations bills, and expiring tax and authorization laws. The exceptions are when an election takes control of Congress away from the president’s party as in 2006 and 2010.  That sets up a last-chance-for-legislative-romance dance between the branches. 

The lame-duck Congress in 2012 was also unusually productive given the action-forcing mechanism of the fiscal cliff. The current lame-duck round is unlikely to replicate its predecessor in legislative activity. That’s because of the lack of crisis, the president’s weakened status as a lame duck himself and Republicans’ better chances for success next Congress. 

No one is in an advantaged position this year to extract anything from a lame duck whose unsynchronized left and right wings have essentially grounded Congress for the better part of the past four years. Better to let it limp off stage with a minimal modicum of respect still intact.

That is not to say the leaders will have an easy time passing even a minimalist, must-pass agenda in the final days. While leaders might be expected under such time-sensitive conditions to pull out all the stops on procedural gimmicks and shortcuts and resort to what I call “procedural quackery” to get things done, quite the opposite has been true. An examination of the past eight Congresses reveals that most legislation considered during a lame-duck session is handled in a fairly straightforward manner. That’s because heavy-handed procedural gamesmanship late in the game can produce unnecessary partisan strife, delay and even defeat.   

Granted, there are no open amendment rules in the waning days of a session — continuing and omnibus appropriations and tax measures are traditionally closed, whether pre- or post-election. Members are more accepting of expedited procedures given the urgency of the agenda and the siren song of families beckoning them home for Thanksgiving and the religious holidays.

So, if you hear any duck calls emanating from Congress over the next month, don’t consider it a procedural quackery alert. More likely they are being sounded by the masters of the flock herding their fine feathered followers toward the exits until the last duck drops.

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.

Roll Call Results Map: Results and District Profiles for Every Seat

October 29, 2014

How Does Campaign Financing Affect Polarization? | Procedural Politics

reid mcconnell 002 060314 445x282 How Does Campaign Financing Affect Polarization? | Procedural Politics

Senate leaders Mitch McConnell and Harry Reid testify during a Senate Judiciary hearing on campaign finance. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

An interesting debate is swirling around next Tuesday’s midterm elections for Congress. It involves the extent to which the sources, amounts and uses of campaign contributions will affect not only the outcomes of various hotly contested races but the makeup, policy agenda and processes of the next Congress.

The 2010 midterms returned Republicans to power in the House after four years of Democratic rule. They also brought in a wave of hardline tea party conservatives who made any kind of cooperation between the House, Senate and White House nearly impossible. The re-election of President Barack Obama in 2012 did not alter that dynamic. If anything, it made governing even more problematic as the 2013 government shutdown amply demonstrated.

Two events this month helped highlight the nexus between campaign financing and polarization in Congress. The Bipartisan Policy Center convened a roundtable Oct. 16 that brought together scholars, political practitioners, good government groups and journalists to discuss whether the current state of campaign financing is responsible for the increasing level of polarization and gridlock in Congress. 

The Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs hosted the second event Oct. 20 in Austin, “Mastering Congress: Political Reform 50 Years After the Great Society.” The program featured two former Texas congressmen who serve on the BPC Commission on Political Reform, and two political scientists who are coauthors of an award-winning book on the increasing role members of Congress play in raising money for their party campaign committees and other candidates.

Dueling duos of academic election experts kicked-off the former roundtable. Tom Mann and Anthony Corrado, governance studies fellows at the Brookings Institution, take issue with those who assert that campaign finance law restrictions have weakened the parties and strengthened outside groups that tend to support more extreme candidates. They maintain that parties are as strong as ever but that the Republican Party “has veered sharply right in recent decades” producing an “asymmetric polarization” characterized by an unwillingness to compromise and a set of “unusually confrontational tactics.”

University of Massachusetts political scientists Ray LaRaja and Brian Schaffner say their research at the state level suggests Mann and Corrado “could be wrong.” Their study indicates that, “states with party-centered campaign finance laws tend to be less polarized than states that constrain how the parties can support candidates.” This is because party organizations tend to fund more moderate, pragmatic candidates. Both sides of the debate concur that recent campaign financing developments are not the overriding cause of increased polarization but have certainly exacerbated it.

Eric Heberlig of the University of North Carolina and Bruce Larson of Gettysburg College, co-authors of “Congressional Parties, Institutional Ambition, and the Financing of Majority Control,” told the Austin conference about the explosive, coordinated growth since 1990 in campaign giving by members of Congress to their party committees and other candidates. Today, party leaders importune their members to give generously to their party campaign committees. The leadership establishes quotas for overall giving to the party depending on a member’s position in the leadership or on committees.

Consequently, members spend less time on their legislative work in Congress and more time raising campaign funds for their own re-election and their party. Former Reps. Henry Bonilla, R-Texas, and Charlie Gonzalez, D-Texas, agreed that members now spend at least one-fourth of their time attending fundraisers and dialing for dollars. Committees consequently are less involved in serious policymaking as party leaders increasingly shape the legislative agenda to satisfy party campaign contributors.  The former congressmen say this shift was especially noticeable beginning in 2006 (Bonilla) or 2010 (Gonzalez).

The increasing role of Super PACs and wealthy, independent donors in recent election cycles poses more unanswered questions about the impact of campaign giving on the agenda and processes of Congress. If there is some correlation between the growth and sources of campaign spending, on the one hand, and legislative outcomes in Congress, then record-breaking campaign spending this cycle could either make the 114th Congress even more gridlocked than its predecessor or more unified and productive around a few select issues — all depending on which party wins the Senate.

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.

October 14, 2014

Members’ Day Proposals Reflect Varied Concerns | Procedural Politics

scalise 074 090914 445x307 Members Day Proposals Reflect Varied Concerns | Procedural Politics

Scalise testified in favor of re-establishing regular accounts for what are now called Congressional Member Organizations like the RSC. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

My previous column left some readers in a state of suspended agitation because I praised the revival of the Members’ Day congressional reform hearing in the Rules Committee (after a 12 year hiatus), but failed to discuss any of the specific proposals recommended. Hopefully this account will douse the ire, though it doesn’t begin to cover all the proposals submitted by the 28 members who offered testimony.   Full story

October 6, 2014

Members’ Day Revives Bipartisan Reform Fest | Procedural Politics

The House Rules Committee recently resurrected a custom first established in 1996 by then-Chairman Jerry Solomon, R-N.Y., inviting members of both parties to testify toward the end of the second session on rules changes they would like to see adopted in the next Congress.  Solomon called the hearing “Members’ Day” to connote the open-ended opportunity for any member to suggest improvements in House operations. 

The hearings produced an array of proposed rules changes ranging from the ridiculous to the sublime.  It also helped affirm that some members still cared about the health and well-being of the institution — a concern that has been dwindling in recent years.  It’s much easier to bash Congress from the inside than to praise or defend it, especially given the foul mood of voters today toward government.

This year, the Rules Subcommittee on Rules and Organization of the House, chaired by Rep. Rich Nugent, R-Fla., hosted the reform fest.Nugent indicated it was the first time since 2002 the hearing had been held.  It was so long ago that ranking subcommittee Democrat Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, first elected in 1996, said he had completely forgotten it had ever happened.  

Nugent also made  clear twice during the hearing that it would not be taking place if it did not have the full blessing and clearance from the Republican leadership — a reminder that Rules is a leadership committee and makes no moves independently, especially as they relate to the operations of the House. 

During the two-hour session on Sept. 17, the subcommittee heard from 15 witnesses (eight Republicans and seven Democrats), who found themselves agreeing more with each other and their Rules Committee interrogators, than disagreeing. Eleven other members submitted statements for the record. 

The hearing was different from the highly charged partisan exchanges that usually take place in the committee’s small hearing room on the third floor of the Capitol.  McGovern didn’t grasp that at first and read a prepared opening statement blasting Republicans for their procedural unfairness and record-breaking number of closed (no-amendment) rules.  When it became apparent this would not be the usual bare-knuckled committee brawl, he spent the rest of the hearing praising the chairman and witnesses from both parties on their thoughtful contributions.

Following the session, first-term Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions, R-Texas, issued a statement saying the purpose of the hearing was to provide a forum for members of both parties to offer ideas on “how we can build on the positive reforms we have put in place over the last several years.”  Sessions said his goal as chairman “is for members to play an active role in shaping the rules package for the next Congress,” and that the hearing “was an important first step in that process.” 

If it were any other committee, such kudos and commitments might be taken as perfunctory nice-speak, signifying little.  Hearings are, after all, one way chairmen give their colleagues something to take credit for without having to give away the legislative store.  But the Rules Committee is a horse of a different color, not prone to making symbolic gestures, let alone to dispensing party favors across-the-aisle. 

Having worked closely with the committee over nearly three decades, including serving as Solomon’s chief-of-staff when the members’ day custom began, I sensed this was a genuine first step being taken by Boehner, through Sessions, after a 12-year hiatus, to signal a more inclusive and collegial tone and direction for the next Congress.  I could be wrong. It wouldn’t the first time my optimism has outraced reality.  But I also sense that House members, reflecting public demands to end gridlock, are ready for change and that this may be the real deal.

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.

September 29, 2014

Ding-Dong Bell, Let’s Go Poison the Well | Procedural Politics

contract 242 091714 445x285 Ding Dong Bell, Lets Go Poison the Well | Procedural Politics

Republicans and Democrats called on Gingrich to move one-minute speeches in 1996 amid increasing partisan acrimony. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Every year I take a group of Wilson Center fellows to Capitol Hill where we observe an hour of House proceedings from the gallery.  Some of the fellows, especially those from other countries, are both fascinated and perplexed by the opening ceremonies — the prayer, the pledge, the welcoming of a guest chaplain, followed by a series of one-minute speeches by members on anything they want to talk about.  

I tell the fellows this opening round of mini-speeches has been dubbed by someone, “the one-minute happy hour” because it is such an eclectic slice of Americana, from praising the hometown football team on winning the state championship, to commending a 100-year-old couple from the district on their 80th wedding anniversary, to blasting the opposition party. 

In the latter case, I inform the group that priority seating in the front row of the chamber goes to two groups of ringers on either side of the aisle dividing the parties. They lead off with their scripted, political messages, with recognition alternating between the parties. The Republicans call their speakers “The Theme Team,” and Democrats call theirs “The Message Group.”  The remarks are usually a mix of the positive and negative, from touting the party’s programs and accomplishments to criticizing the opposition party’s irresponsible policies.

To a visitor in the gallery it might appear that the bells convening the day’s session have triggered a partisan Pavlovian response.  In 1996, one-minutes got so nasty that a bipartisan group of 50 members wrote to then-Speaker Newt Gingrich, urging him to move one-minutes to the end of the day because the partisan punch lines were poisoning the well of the House before the day’s legislative business even began.  It reminded me of the nursery rhyme, “Pussy’s in the Well,” but with a twist: “Ding-dong bell, let’s go poison the well.” Full story

September 15, 2014

War Powers Resolution Nags a Reluctant Congress | Procedural Politics

In his Sept. 10 address to the nation, President Barack Obama asserted he already had authority to go after the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant but would welcome congressional action to underscore the U.S. commitment. Leaders of both parties in Congress, while supportive of the president’s aims, visibly balked at holding a direct vote to authorize military action, at least before the midterm elections. It was a rare profile in bipartisanship if not courage.

To date, the president has been pursuing a limited mission to protect American personnel and threatened religious minorities in Iraq. Obtaining a full-fledged congressional debate and vote for wider military action would both educate the public and fulfill Congress’ responsibilities under the war powers resolution. Failure to pass such a measure, however, would throw the administration’s foreign policy credibility into further disarray.

A year to the day before his Sept. 10 address to the nation, the president asked Congress for authority to enforce his “red line” against Syria for using chemical weapons on its own people. Congress made clear then it didn’t want such a vote and that, if taken, it would fail. Before the matter came to a head the confrontation was preempted by a Russian-brokered deal with the Assad regime.

By contrast, in 2011, the president avoided seeking such a vote from Congress for the NATO air strikes against Libya’s Gadhafi regime to head-off an anticipated massacre of civilians. The president leaned instead on support from the Arab League and United Nations.

The War Powers Resolution was enacted by Congress in 1973 over President Richard Nixon’s veto. Nixon and all his successors called the act an unconstitutional intrusion on their authority as commander-in-chief to protect the nation. Especially objectionable was the requirement that, absent congressional approval, troops must be automatically withdrawn from hostilities after 60 days, or 90 days if the president certifies additional time is necessary to ensure their safe withdrawal.

The act was plagued from the start by ambiguities because a House-Senate conference committee did not fully resolve differences between the bodies. One section specifies “only” three situations in which the president can commit troops to hostilities: A declaration of war, specific statutory authorization, or to repel a direct attack on the U.S., its territories or armed forces.

Another section requires the president to report on situations in which U.S. forces “are introduced into hostilities or situations where imminent involvement in hostilities is clearly indicated by the circumstances,” or “into the territory, airspace or waters of a foreign nation while equipped for combat” — all without specific reference to any attack on the U.S., its territories or armed forces.

Not surprisingly, a group of 15 House members initially voted against the legislation for fear future presidents would consider it a three-month free pass to wage war anywhere for any reason without congressional acquiescence. That concern has proved especially prescient.

Presidents have generally honored the law’s reporting requirements when committing U.S. forces to hostilities or imminent hostilities. In the meantime, unless specifically asked for authority by the president, Congress prefers to avoid a vote on extending troop commitments beyond the deadline and does not insist on their automatic withdrawal thereafter. The unauthorized bombing war over Libya, for example, went on for seven months as the mission morphed from humanitarian to regime change.

Obama’s claim that he has authority for the latest military campaign under the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force ignores Congress’ specific rejection in that instance of broader language requested by the Bush administration. In addition to requesting authority to “use of all necessary force” against those responsible for planning, authorizing, committing, aiding or harboring those who committed the 9/11 attacks, the administration wanted blanket authority to “to deter and preempt any future acts of terrorism or aggression against the United States.” Congressional negotiators said “no.”

The Constitution is clear that the power to declare war resides in Congress. History shows, however, that the residents aren’t always home or answering the door when a president or circumstances come knocking.

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.

Roll Call Election Map: Race Ratings for Every Seat

Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.

June 13, 2014

First, Chill All the Lawyers in Congress | Procedural Politics

To put a gentler twist on Shakespeare’s more drastic remedy: The first thing we do, let’s chill all the lawyers in Congress. That way they may become cool and practical legislators.

I say that as one who has great respect for lawyers. My father wanted me to be one (I am not); I am married to one; and half my wonderful bosses on the Hill were lawyers before they became lawmakers. Having served with lawyer members and staff alike, I know they bring a critically trained eye to policy problems and legislative draftsmanship. There is something about an appreciation for the law that makes you more cautious about drafting new ones.

Having paid that well-deserved tribute to the lawyer class in Congress, I still have a brief grief with a small coterie of legal beavers who gnaw so much on their trees of legalese they lose sight of the legislative forest.

I hadn’t really thought of it until someone told me of meeting with a group of members to discuss some of the major policy issues confronting the nation and what they were doing about them. Instead of demonstrating any considered appreciation for the causes and consequences of the problems and their solutions, the members wandered off onto esoteric legal side streets and cul-de-sacs, all the while ignoring “the meat of the coconut” (as one of my non-lawyer bosses used to call it). This may be a useful tack at an ABA seminar on an obscure section of federal contract law, but it does not resonate with John Q. Citizen who is more concerned about jobs and the economy.

So why do some members get so sidetracked? I don’t think it is to impress anyone with their legal acumen; they know that only turns most people off. Nor do I think it is necessarily an intentional device to avoid talking about the real nature of the problem at hand. But that is getting closer. Usually it bespeaks members’ limited familiarity with the details of the multiplicity of things they are expected to grapple with in each Congress.

Sometimes it reflects a legal angle from their leadership’s talking points about pending issues. Quite often those are part of the larger party message machine on how to parry criticisms from the opposition about the party’s policy positions (or lack thereof). Clever legal arguments can be effective (or at least deflective) defense mechanisms.

Think of it as dueling moot court teams exchanging what they hope are winning gotcha points. Unfortunately, that only tends to impress other lawyers and skirt the coconut altogether. Still, you go with what you know to show some understanding of the situation.

I won’t go into examples here but they become apparent once you start considering arguments being advanced using this template. They can be found in discussions of mega-problems from global warming and legal culpability for it to immigration laws and enforcement technicalities. And it can be found in congressional investigations of government scandals that often get hung-up on the legal vulnerabilities of witnesses instead of addressing the actual sources of systemic government failures and correcting them.

Many of these legal haggles are tied to the permanent campaign and individuals seeking to score legal points for partisan gain. While it is not effective with average voters, as already mentioned, it does feed a certain element of the political base of both parties that sees the tight political struggle for power as depending in part on superior legal arguments to bolster the parties’ policy positions. Some of those legal disputes end up as frivolous lawsuits filed by partisans to tie opponents down.

Former Democratic Speaker Champ Clark of Missouri (1911-1919) recounts in his memoir Supreme Court Justice David Brewer’s observation that, “America is the paradise of lawyers.” No one has ever accused Congress of inhabiting such a lofty perch.

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.

May 15, 2014

Ukraine Crisis Dimly Illuminates Public Ambivalence | Procedural Politics

In our democratic policy process, there is an obvious link between popular sentiment and our elected leaders. However, matters can be somewhat murky when it comes to foreign policy. That’s due in part to the deference paid by the people and Congress to the president’s role in acting and speaking for the nation, at least at the outset of international incidents. It is also due in part to the public’s low level of knowledge and interest in foreign affairs.

President John F. Kennedy perhaps best explained why foreign policy should be treated differently. In a Salt Lake City speech in September 1963, he said, “The purpose of foreign policy is not to provide an outlet for our own sentiments of hope or indignation; it is to shape real events in a real world.”

Still, Congress and public opinion do come into play whenever an international crisis erupts. The current crisis involving Russian military intervention in Ukraine helps illuminate the complex dynamic at the intersection of the presidency, Congress and the people.

President Barack Obama’s policy of not providing lethal military assistance to Ukraine while working with our allies to marshal diplomatic and economic pressures against Russia is consistent with his overall foreign policy approach. If there is an emerging Obama Doctrine it involves encouraging multilateral action when the U.S. is not directly threatened. The reluctance to reengage militarily anywhere is consonant with the wishes of Congress and the people in the weary wake of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

A late April poll by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal showed 45 percent disapproval of the president’s handling of the Ukraine crisis, and only 37 percent approval — a turnaround from an early March poll by the same pollster showing a 43 percent-41 percent approval-disapproval breakdown. A larger number in the most recent poll, 53 percent, disapprove the president’s overall handling of foreign policy, with just 38 percent approving.

Foreign affairs analyst Robert Kagan surmises that this paradox of greater dissatisfaction with the president’s overall handling of foreign policy compared to his specific policies can be attributed to public unhappiness with America’s perceived retreat as leader of the free world.

That same late April NBC/WSJ poll showed 47 percent favored a less active U.S. role in world affairs, 19 percent favored a more active role, and 30 percent favored current levels of involvement. However, 55 percent agreed we need a president “who will present an image of strength that shows America’s willingness to confront our enemies and stand up for our principles.” Just 39 percent felt we need a president who shows a more open approach and willingness to negotiate with friends and foes alike.

On Ukraine, this ambivalence over foreign policy played out in Congress, with some members noisily criticizing the president for not providing more military aid to Ukraine and for not imposing tougher sanctions on the Russians, while others were quietly content to use less dramatic means to defuse the situation. Congress moved haltingly in the early days of the crisis, balking at the administration’s requested reforms in the International Monetary Fund to better deal with economic crises like Ukraine.

What started as a more ambitious 40-page bill devolved into two modest laws totaling 12 pages. One provided $1 billion in loan guarantees for Ukraine, authorized $50 million in democracy support, and imposed mandatory targeted sanctions on the Russians. The other authorized (but did not appropriate) an additional $10 million in stepped-up Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Voice of America broadcasts to the region. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, said of the broadcast booster: “As drafted, it is an unfunded mandate.”

The public was probably unaware of either enactment because the measures tiptoed through and around committees of jurisdiction without recorded votes or reports and then passed both chambers overwhelmingly without controversy, fanfare or signing ceremony. For Congress the watchwords were bipartisan, “first step” and presidential support, while it stayed far enough back should anything go wrong. It might be called, “following from behind.”

It is hard to grasp how the most transparent branch of government can sometimes stutter-step so stealthily. But, as a reactive and representative body it is simply reflecting in a mirror dimly the people’s mixed mindset.

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.

April 28, 2014

Does Congress Care About Public Opinion? | Procedural Politics

Do members of Congress care what the people think of them? With Congress’ job approval running at historic lows, you might conclude they don’t care because they don’t seem to be doing anything about it.

If you ask members directly whether they are concerned about public opinion polls showing them mired in a swamp of low esteem, you will likely get the curt response: “I don’t need public opinion polls to tell me what my people think. I am back in my district every weekend listening to them.” Pressed further, they might tell you the people are indeed angry with Congress, but very supportive of their own member’s tough stands on the issues.

This ambivalence is reflected in those polls that differentiate between job approval of Congress and approval of the respondents’ own representatives. A March poll commissioned by the Bipartisan Policy Center in conjunction with USA Today showed Congress’ job approval rating at just 19 percent, while people gave their own representatives a 52 percent approval rating.

The gap between institutional and individual approval has remained relatively constant over time, though both ratings are down roughly 10 percent from historical averages. The disparity between Congress’ approval and that of one’s own representative even has a name, “Fenno’s Paradox,” after political scientist Richard Fenno. He identified the anomaly in a 1972 lecture titled, “If, as Ralph Nader Says, Congress Is ‘the Broken Branch,’ How Come We Love Our Congressmen So Much?”

The reasons for the difference are not difficult to discern. Voters tend to know more about their representative than about Congress itself, and their views of the former are based on what they feel their member has done for the district and individual constituents. The typical constituent’s view is, “Our member is a smart, hard-working and caring person. It’s the rest of them who are a bunch of lazy bums.” That helps explain why incumbent re-election rates continue to exceed 90 percent even when Congress is only scoring 20 percent favorability ratings.

People have a negative view of Congress because they think it accomplishes little and is intent on waging noisy, partisan battles that usually end in stalemate. Pummeling Congress has been a popular national sport since the beginning of the republic, with everyone playing offense: the media, the public and even members themselves. Those negative attacks tend to feed on each other and grow.

That is not to say criticism of Congress is not usually justified. However, even when Congress manages to accomplish some the important things, they tend to be incremental and barely noticed, leaving the institution with precious little credit, recognition or respect.

So why hasn’t Congress done more to dispel this stereotype of a do-nothing, gridlocked body? One of the reasons previously alluded is that members think they are acting and voting in accord with what their constituents want. Never mind that voters want two different things simultaneously. According to the BPC/USA Today poll cited above, 80 percent of respondents feel their representatives should vote for what the people they represent want as opposed to 17 percent who feel members should vote according to their own conscience and experience.

However, only 29 percent think members should stick to their principles and do what they and their constituents think is right, even if it means not passing legislation that addresses serious problems. Sixty-seven percent think members should work across party lines and engage in give and take to come up with solutions to the nation’s problems, even if it means giving in on some of their principles.

While those responses may seem contradictory, they actually reflect a common conviction by the people of why they send their representatives to Washington in the first place: They fully expect them to work things out among themselves through consensus building and compromise when it is in the best interest of the nation. It is all about governing.

As Rep. John D. Dingell, D-Mich., recently reminded his colleagues upon announcing his retirement, Congress means “a coming together.” The fact that members instead seem to be flailing apart bespeaks a basic misunderstanding of their constitutional role. Maybe in addition to opening each day’s session with a prayer and the pledge, members should be forced to watch that classic kids’ cartoon, “School House Rock,” on how a bill becomes a law.

This will be my last column with Roll Call due to new directions at the publication. I simply want to thank Roll Call for carrying “Procedural Politics” since 2006, and for all its editorial support along the way. I am especially grateful to the many faithful readers of the column for their encouraging comments and suggestions over the years. I expect to continue publishing elsewhere in a similar vein, at least until we get Congress right. Until next time …

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.

April 1, 2014

Discharge Petitions Are Useful Minority Tools | Procedural Politics

Perhaps only Congress can invent a tool that it fully expects will rarely perform its intended function. It’s called the discharge petition, a device designed to dislodge bills stuck in committee. This year, House Democrats have filed three such petitions on issues they hope will propel them back to majority status in the midterm elections — a minimum wage increase, an immigration overhaul and unemployment compensation.

The original House discharge rule was adopted in 1910 as a further blow for majority rule just three months after minority Democrats and insurgent Republicans ousted Speaker Joe Cannon as Rules Committee chairman. Under the modern version of the rule, adopted in 1931, a member can file a petition on a motion to discharge any bill that has been pending in committee at least 30 legislative days or on a special rule for consideration of such a bill if the rule has been in the Rules Committee for at least seven legislative days. The advantage of discharging a special rule is that it keeps the process alive even if the bill is reported from committee. A petition directly discharging a bill from committee is dead once the committee reports the measure.

When a petition gains 218 signatures (a full House majority), the motion to discharge is placed on the discharge calendar. After seven legislative days it can be called up on the second or fourth Monday of the month by any member who signed the petition. If the motion is adopted after 20 minutes of debate, the House proceeds immediately to consider the bill or special rule.

On Feb. 26, Democratic Rep. Timothy H. Bishop of New York filed a discharge petition on a bill introduced last year by Education and the Workforce Committee ranking Democrat George Miller of California to increase the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 an hour. The petition, filed at the clerk’s desk at the front of the House chamber, currently has 195 of the requisite 218 signatures.

Because Bishop filed his petition directly on the Miller bill and not on a special rule, he is counting heavily on Education and the Workforce Republicans not reporting the bill to vitiate the discharge process. Should the Bishop petition succeed, the House would proceed to consider the bill in the Committee of the Whole subject to up to one hour of debate per member, followed by an open amendment process under the 5-minute rule (an unintended filibuster?)

Coincidentally, the first discharge petition to succeed in the enactment of a law occurred on the very first federal minimum wage law, the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. It was an unusual situation because the Democratic majority was twice forced to dislodge a special rule from the Rules Committee for consideration of the Senate-passed 40-cents an hour minimum wage bill reported by the House Labor Committee. In 1937, the Rules Committee was under the control of a conservative coalition of Democrats and Republicans reflecting in part a backlash in Congress against President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s attempted packing of the Supreme Court.

Because the minimum wage bill was recommitted to the Labor Committee after the first discharge success, a second petition was filed in the next session on a new special rule for the same bill after the Labor Committee again reported it. Both discharge moves were led by Labor Committee Chairman Mary T. Norton, a fiery liberal Democrat from New Jersey. The bill’s second iteration scaled-back the earlier 40-cents an hour minimum wage to 20 cents. It overwhelmingly passed the House and became law after a conference with the Senate.

Miller and Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, both retiring “Watergate Babies” (class of 1974), succeeded in bringing President Barack Obama around this year to their $10.10 minimum wage bills from the $9 hourly wage the president advocated just a year ago. Miller, former chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, is rounding-out the circle begun by his 1930s counterpart, Chairman Norton.

Historically, discharge petitions are exercises in futility given majority party opposition. Since 1931, 637 discharge petitions have been filed, including nine in this Congress. Only 47 have reached the discharge calendar — none in the past decade. Only three discharged bills have become law although other targeted discharge measures have been enacted using alternative procedures. Nonetheless, the device remains a useful tool in rallying House minority party members, pressuring vulnerable majority party members, mobilizing grass-roots supporters, raising campaign funds from allied interest groups and educating voters on major issues dividing the parties.

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.

February 25, 2014

Congress’ Budgeting Would Baffle a Martian | Procedural Politics

If a martian landed here today with the mission to bring back information on how Congress makes budgets, he might report back there is no sign of intelligent life in Washington — at least when it comes to budgeting. On the other hand, he might conclude the opposite: The budget process is so convoluted and complex that officials have obviously encrypted the whole thing so no other country or planet can crack the code as to how U.S. budgets are really made.

That scenario occurred to me recently when I was interviewed by an aspiring young journalist who asked how it was that Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, was the chief sponsor of the omnibus appropriations bill signed into law in January. As Smith is not a member of the Appropriations Committee, let alone its chairman (he chairs the Science, Space and Technology Committee), it indeed would have been curious if the leadership had tapped him to carry the big government funding bill.

As it turns out, the Smith measure began as a one-page bill extending the license application deadline for commercial space launch indemnity insurance. In December it passed the House under suspension of the rules (a process for noncontroversial matters), and then the Senate with an amendment. In January, Smith’s bill was used as the vehicle in which to stuff the 1,500-page, $1.012 trillion omnibus government funding bill. Think of it as the cargo-hold of a space shuttle being used to transport gobs of greenbacks. Full story

January 14, 2014

Czar Speaker Is Vindicated on Overthrow Ruling | Procedural Politics

In my Dec. 18 column, “Senate Leader Reid’s Rule Recalls House Czars”, I recounted how a group of progressive Republicans and Democrats removed Speaker Joe Cannon, R-Ill., as chairman and a member of the Rules Committee in 1910 by claiming a constitutional privilege to change House rules from the floor. When Cannon ruled the motion was not privileged under the Constitution, his decision was appealed and overturned.

The bipartisan coalition proceeded to adopt its rule change, which converted the Rules Committee from a speaker-appointed committee of five members to a 10-member committee elected by the House. Cannon, gracious in defeat, immediately announced he would entertain a motion that the speakership be vacated, and a Democratic member obliged. But even the progressive Republicans returned to the fold and helped defeat what would have been Cannon’s ultimate humiliation.

That column may have left the impression that the precedent set during that revolt against the “Czar Speaker” means that the House can still change its rules at any time as a matter of constitutional privilege. Nothing could be further from the truth. Although Republicans lost control of Congress in the 1910 elections, Cannon saw to it, before relinquishing his gavel at the end of that Congress, that the precedent set by his eviction from the Rules Committee was reversed.

On Dec. 5, 1910, a third session of the 61st Congress convened. A month later, on Jan. 9, 1911, Rep. Charles Fuller, R-Ill., rose in the House to offer an amendment to House rules which he claimed was “a question of constitutional privilege.” His rule change would reverse the order of a rule that gave motions to discharge committees priority over motions to suspend the rules.

Rep. James Mann of Illinois, who would become Republican leader in the next Congress, raised a point of order that the motion was not privileged. Cannon, still in the chair as speaker, apparently relished revisiting the question because he entertained a lengthy debate on the point of order before issuing his ruling.

Rep. Oscar Underwood, D-Ala., who would become Mann’s counterpart as his party’s leader in the next Congress, said he had never argued that Cannon’s 1910 ruling was wrong, but simply that it had to be overturned because the American people were in favor of divorcing Cannon from the Rules Committee, and a House majority could only secure a vote on that proposition by leading “a revolution.”

Mann responded that “a revolution sometimes changes a form of government” and asked Underwood whether he was for “following up the revolution or is returning to the original form of government”  — whether he is “now for the new republic or the old kingdom.” Underwood said further revolution wasn’t necessary in the present case because the will of the House was not being blocked. In response to another question from Mann, Underwood agreed that the rule change being proposed by Fuller “is not in order.”

In short, even the Democrats recognized that allowing the precedent to stand was a dangerous proposition, especially because they would control the House in just two months. When Cannon sustained the point of order that Fuller’s proposed rule change was not privileged, Fuller did not appeal the ruling out of “great respect for the speaker” — a clear clue the whole exercise was a setup. A Democratic member, however, did appeal, and Cannon’s decision was overwhelmingly upheld, 235-53.

Today, the House is also guided by a 1977 precedent that “an appeal from the ruling of the Chair is not in order if the effect of the appeal, if sustained, would be to change a rule of the House.” The Senate, on the other hand, has no such prohibition, which is why, on Nov. 21, Majority Leader Harry Reid was able to make a point of order that, on his successful appeal, lowered the threshold for ending debates on most presidential nominations from three-fifths to a majority vote  — a rule-changing precedent.

Thomas Jefferson, in his manual of parliamentary practice for the Senate, asserts that “the only weapons by which the minority can defend themselves” against abuses of power by the majority “are the forms and rules of proceeding” and “a strict adherence” to them. The House recognized in 1911 how dangerous the precedent could become if rules could be changed willy-nilly from the floor at the whim of any member. The Senate will eventually have a similar day of reckoning over what it has done. The sooner that occurs, the better.

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.

November 5, 2013

Ideology Isn’t Source of All Partisanship | Procedural Politics

Why do political parties in Congress sometimes fight, even when they agree? Is it like siblings who seem to quarrel over nothing — just the nature of the beast?

Frances Lee, a political scientist at the University of Maryland, agrees that a lot of the inter-party fighting seems senseless because it doesn’t involve deep philosophical differences. In her book, “Beyond Ideology: Politics, Principles and Partisanship in the U.S. Senate,” Lee writes, “The public perceives party conflict in Congress as ‘bickering,’ as excessive quarreling driven by members’ power and electoral interests.”

Political scientists, on the other hand, have “tended to interpret congressional party conflicts as evidence of members’ principled differences on the proper role and scope of government,” she writes.

Lee sides more with public perceptions that parties often spar just to advance narrow partisan interests, rather than giving voice to pre-existing policy differences in the larger political context. That only exacerbates and institutionalizes conflict. In their quest to win elections and hold power, she writes, “partisans impeach one another’s motives, question one another’s ethics and competence and engage in reflexive partisanship … rather than seeking common ground.”

Evidence of this can be found in instances in which the parties are in broad agreement on an underlying bill yet still engage in partisan combat. Lee’s analysis of the Senate reveals that “procedural votes on issues not involving ideological questions are just as intensely partisan as substantive votes on some of the most ideologically controversial issues in American politics.”

From my experience, the House is much the same. An example arose last month over House consideration of the Water Resources Reform and Development Act. The bill would authorize 23 water projects — dams, levees, canals, harbors, dredging and environmental restoration programs — at a cost of $3.1 billion over the next five years. It also would establish a new, non-congressional earmark process for selecting future projects.

The bill had nearly four dozen bipartisan co-sponsors and was approved on a voice vote from the 70-member House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Dozens of business, labor and civic groups endorsed the bill, as did the White House and bipartisan House leadership. With such a strong tailwind, it is little wonder the measure sailed through the House, 417-3.

And yet, before the vote, the special rule for the bill encountered partisan resistance. The Rules Committee had allowed one hour of general debate and 24 amendments — divided equally between the parties. However, 98 amendments had been submitted to the Rules Committee. Ranking Democrat Louise M. Slaughter’s attempt in committee to substitute an open amendment process was defeated on a party-line vote, as were attempts to make in order three additional amendments.

When the rule was called up on the floor, Rep. Alcee L. Hastings, who was managing the rule for committee Democrats, complained that the procedure blocked more than 70 amendments, “many of which were germane” — he said that “is not conducive to an open process.” The Florida Democrat then spent the balance of his time discussing something closer to home: Port Everglades, Fla., has been waiting 17 years for a report from the chief engineer of the Army Corps of Engineers on deepening its channels in anticipation of the new Panama Canal standards.

Near the end of the hour of debate on the rule, Hastings indicated that if the previous question on the rule was defeated (the only opportunity for the minority to amend the rule), he would offer a motion to make in order an amendment by Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Fla., to authorize projects that received a final chief of engineer’s report within a year after enactment, thereby holding out hope for Port Everglades. Despite Hastings’ efforts, the previous question was adopted on a near party-line vote, with only two Democrats breaking ranks, and the rule was subsequently adopted with all but 48 Democrats opposing it.

This minor partisan dust-up on the rule didn’t affect the eventual overwhelming passage of the bill. Hastings didn’t follow through on his implied threat to force a vote on an open amendment process and instead confirmed former Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill Jr.’s axiom that “all politics is local.”

Nevertheless, the two procedural votes on the rule will be part of CQ Roll Call’s session-end tally of “party unity” votes (party majorities on opposing sides), as well as of ideological spectrum rankings of members. In the 112th Congress, 197 party unity votes on special rules alone (not counting other procedural votes) constituted 17 percent of all party unity votes — a significant exception to any ideology connection.

Sign In

Forgot password?

Or

Subscribe

Receive daily coverage of the people, politics and personality of Capitol Hill.

Subscription | Free Trial

Logging you in. One moment, please...