Under Pelosi and Slaughter, 54 House Freshmen Have Never Had Unrestricted Debate on a Bill

November 2, 2010 - 8:00 PM

Louise Slaughter and Nancy Pelosi

House Rules Committee chairman Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) and Speaker Nancy Pelosi. (Photo: Flickr/Louise Slaughter Web site)

(CNSNews.com) – The 111th Congress adjourned without House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) ever having allowed debate on all desired amendments under the normal rules of the House of Representatives.

As a result, many of the 54 freshman members first elected to the House in 2008 could be ushered out by Wednesday morning without having ever engaged in unrestricted debate on a bill or been able to offer their own amendments.

Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), who may  become the next Speaker should the GOP win control of the House, criticized Pelosi last month for so tightly controlling floor activity.

In a September 30 policy speech at the American Enterprise Institute laying out his agenda for making the House more deliberative, Boehner said the dysfunction in the House had reached a “tipping point.”

He took aim at the nonappearance during the outgoing Congress of so-called “open rule,” which allows any member may offer germane amendments to a draft bill.

“From the floor of the House to the committee level, the integrity of the House has been compromised,” Boehner said. “This is the first Congress in our history that has not allowed one bill to come to the floor under an open rule. The current freshman class has served almost their entire term without ever having the chance to debate a bill under an open process in the House.”

Pelosi has instead brought bills to the floor under “special” or “closed” rules, which set strict parameters on the amount of time spent debating and on which amendments can be considered by the full House.

Those rules are crafted in the powerful House Rules Committee, which is led by members of the majority party in each congressional session and is currently chaired by Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.), who shares a close relationship with Pelosi.

With Slaughter’s help, Pelosi has ushered every bill to the floor under some kind of closed or special rule.

Under a closed rule, amendments can only be debated or added during the committee process, and none can be offered or considered on the floor; rank-and-file members have a binary choice: vote for the bill in the form the House leadership has approved or vote to keep the current-law status quo.

A special rule falls anywhere between the closed rule and the open rule, under which any germane amendment can be offered to improve the legislation.

A special rule, for example, might limit debate to an hour for members of each party, and select a few amendments on which the leadership is willing to allow a debate and vote of the full chamber.

Special and closed rules are a way for the House leadership to manage what could become a chaotic and unending process. But over the last few decades, their use has been ever-increasing and in recent Congresses has become the rule rather than the exception.

An Emory Law Journal study shows that during the Republican-controlled 109th Congress, the Rules Committee issued 120 rules that significantly limited debate, 55 of which were totally closed rules.

In the 110th Congress, the first led by Pelosi as Speaker, the number of special rules rose along with the total volume of bills considered, to 185 special rules. But the share of those that significantly limited debate and amendments also rose, to 162.

Finally, in the 111th Congress, Pelosi and Slaughter crafted special or closed rules for everything they ultimately passed.

The most prominent example of the penchant for special rules relates to the March 2010 passage of the health care reform bill, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Slaughter reportedly attempted to craft a rule that would allow Democrats to vote on a package of fixes to the bill and thereby “deem” the underlying bill passed, without technically having to cast a roll call vote, and thereby presumably minimizing the political fallout.

But Rules Committee ranking member David Dreier (R-Calif.) called the rule an “end-run around the Democratic process.” He insisted Americans get “a fair, open, transparent vote that clearly puts each Member of Congress on record for the position he or she takes on the very critical issue of America’s health care system.”

Ultimately, the so-called Slaughter Rule did not get enough support to be applied to the health care bill, although the reform package still passed under strict parameters for debate. The parties each had an hour to debate the Senate’s changes with no new amendments.

Dreier later called for a “full and fair” debate on whether to extend the Bush tax cuts, and said in a statement, “There should be a vote on all the proposals out there, not just the one Speaker Pelosi wants to pass.”

Pelosi, however, called a vote to adjourn the House of Representatives on September 29 before holding any vote on those taxes, which are set to expire at the end of the year.

Provided that she does not reverse tack and allow any open-rule votes between the election and the seating of the 112th Congress – the “lame-duck session” – many of the freshman members may see their careers end without seeing a vote free of special rules, or being able to freely offer amendments.

Many of them, including Reps. Steve Driehaus (D-Ohio), Betsy Markey (D-Colo.), Alan Grayson (D-Fl.), and Dina Titus (D-Nev.), face tough re-election battles after being swept into office from moderate districts on the coattails of President Obama.

According to nonpartisan poll-watcher Charlie Cook, 25 of these are new Democrats locked in races rated as toss-ups or worse, while Reps. Anh Cao (R-La.) and Charles Djou (R-Hawaii) are both in competitive races in heavily Democratic districts, for a total of at least 27 likely freshman departures.

The following is a list of all freshman members of the U.S. House of Representatives:

Bobby Bright (AL-2)

Parker Griffith (AL-5)

Ann Kirkpatrcik (AZ-1)

Tom McClintock (CA-4)

Duncan Hunter (CA-54)

Jared Polis (CO-2)

Betsy Markey (CO-4)

Mike Coffman (CO-6)

Jim Himes (CT-4)

Alan Grayson (FL-8)

Bill Posey (FL-15)

Tom Rooney (FL-16)

Suzanne Kosmas (FL-24)

Walt Minnick (ID-1)

Deborah Halvorson (IL-11)

Aaron Schock (IL-18)

Lynn Jenkins (KS-2)

Brett Guthrie (KY-1)

Anh Cao (LA-1)

John Fleming (LA-4)

Bill Cassidy (LA-1)

Chellie Pingree (ME-1)

Frank Kratovil (MD-1)

Mark Schauer (MI-7)

Gary C. Peters (MI-9)

Erick Paulsen (MN-3)

Gregg Harper (MS-3)

Blaine Luetkemeyer (MO-9)

Dina Titus (NV-3)

John H. Adler (NJ-3)

Leonard Lance (NJ-7)

Martin Heinrich (NM-1)

Harry Teague (NM-2)

Ben R. Lujan (NM-3)

Mike McMahon (NY-13)

Paul Tonko (NY-21)

Dan Maffei (NY-25)

Christopher Lee (NY-26)

*Eric Massa (NY-29) – resigned

Larry Kissell (NC-8)

Steve Driehaus (OH-1)

Steve Austria (OH-7)

Mary Jo Kilroy (OH-15)

John Boccieri (OH-16)

Kurt Schrader (OR-5)

Kathy Dahlkemper (PA-3)

Glenn W. “GT” Thompson (PA-5)

Phil Roe (TN-1)

Pete Olson (TX-22)

Jason Chaffetz (UT-3)

Glenn Nye (VA-2)

Tom Perriello (VA-5)

Gerry Connolly (VA-11)

Cynthia Lummis (WY-AL)