Column: Gagging the house
WASHINGTON — The Republican-led House will reach a dubious milestone this week: It will enter the record books as the most gagged in American history.
The House Rules Committee plans to approve two more “closed rules” for debate — a procedure to block lawmakers from offering amendments on the House floor — bringing the total in the current Congress to 62. This will break the record of 61 closed rules set during Nancy Pelosi’s 2007-08 Congress — and John Boehner’s House still has seven months in which to run up the score.
To put this in perspective, in 1975-76, only three rules were designated as closed. Republicans complained when they took control of Congress in 1995 that the number of “open rules” — the sort of freewheeling debate that characterized the House for most of its history — had fallen to 30 percent of all debates in 1993-94, from 85 percent in 1975-76. And now? Open debates are 6 percent of the House total.
The increasingly undemocratic way in which the House is governed is both a symptom and a cause of the fierce partisanship that has seized the country, and the condition has worsened under both parties’ rule. The frequent promise to “let the House work its will” is almost never honored — and not just on high-profile issues such as immigration reform, unemployment insurance and the minimum wage.
But although the blame is bipartisan, Republicans carry an additional burden of hypocrisy. After the bitter Obamacare debate, they justifiably complained that Democrats did not have a single open rule in 2009-10, and they pledged changes.
“We will do these things ... in a manner that restores and respects the time-honored right of the minority to an honest debate, a fair and open process,” Boehner said upon assuming the speakership. “And to my friends in the minority, I offer a commitment: Openness, once a tradition of this institution, but increasingly scarce in recent decades, will be the new standard. There were no open rules in the House in the last Congress. In this one there will be many. ... You will always have the right to a robust debate in an open process that allows you to represent your constituents, to make your case, offer alternatives and be heard.”
But the closed rules continued their long-term growth. According to figures provided to me, which both Republican and Democratic officials on the Rules Committee say are accurate, there were nine closed rules in the 1991-92 Congress, five in 1993-94, 25 in 1995-96, 23 in 1997-98, 51 in 1999-2000, 29 in 2001-02, 44 in 2003-04, 56 in 2005-06, 61 in 2007-08, 37 in 2009-10, and 53 in 2011-12 before what probably will be 62 so far for 2013-14.
Some of the change can be attributed to the C-SPAN effect: With the TV cameras rolling, lawmakers are more inclined to play gotcha on the House floor, to force opponents to take embarrassing votes. In this situation, amendments are often meant to gum up the works rather than to offer good-faith improvements to legislation. Now there’s also the Ted Cruz effect: The 2013-14 tally is so high in part because of last year’s government shutdown, when Republicans, following the Texas Republican senator’s ill-advised plan of offering to reopen the government one piece at a time, approved 21 closed rules, including 11 in a single day.
A spokesman for Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions, R-Texas, noted Monday that there have been 22 open rules in the past four years, after none in the previous Congress, and he said GOP leaders have been using more “structured” rules that allow for some Democratic amendments without making the floor debate unwieldy. But he agreed that, under both parties, “the majority’s natural inclination is to try to exert more control over the process rather than less.”
That’s an understandable inclination — as is the tendency to push through legislation under “emergency” rules rather than the more laborious process of following normal procedures. Roughly four in 10 measures were taken up under “emergency” rules last year, which, Democratic lawmakers say, doesn’t give adequate time to read them.
The Republicans are free to do all this, and it’s sometimes justified. But it’s striking how quickly they dropped their vows of transparency and instead embraced and expanded the use of the Washington shenanigans they deplored.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.