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Lesson of energy debate: Majority party controls the agenda

Several House Republicans, including Minnesota’s John Kline, are spending at least part of the congressional recess waging a partisan protest over energy policy in a dormant House chamber instead of in their districts (or on vacation).  The current

Several House Republicans, including Minnesota’s John Kline, are spending at least part of the congressional recess waging a partisan protest over energy policy in a dormant House chamber instead of in their districts (or on vacation). The current war of words between the two parties over energy policy highlights majority party leaders’ tight control over the legislative agenda and just how entrenched the partisan divide has become on Capitol Hill.   

Republicans are outraged that Democratic leaders did not allow Republicans to offer legislation to allow offshore drilling before Congress adjourned until September. They are retaliating by attacking Democrats relentlessly inside the dormant House chamber and in press conferences on Capitol Hill in ways that will only diminish the chances of bipartisan cooperation when the House reconvenes in September. (It’s worth noting that the majority controls the cameras inside the House and, therefore, they are turned off, so C-SPAN only covers Republican press conferences outside of the Capitol.)  

Yet, Democratic leaders have left Republicans with few options. On “This Week in Washington” on Aug. 3, George Stephanopoulos asked House Speaker Nancy Pelosi why Republicans can’t have a vote on their drilling proposal.  Her response was hardly encouraging: “They’ll have to use their imagination as to how they can get a vote, and they may get a vote.”  Translation: Democrats control the agenda.

The majority party in the House determines which bills and amendments come to the House floor for a vote.  With increasing frequency, majority leaders bring bills to the floor governed by special rules that give the minority party (and their own rank-and-file members, for that matter) no opportunity to offer amendments.  This ensures that the outcome will reflect the preferences of the majority party, rather than the preferences of a coalition of 218 or more members drawn from both parties.  Not surprisingly, many important legislative votes tend to break down along party lines. 

A PR war
Most recently, Democrats have brought up legislation to rein in energy speculation under rules that limit debate, require a two-thirds majority to pass, and — most notably — prohibit amendments.
It’s regrettable, but not without precedent, that Republicans are responding to their most recent exclusion from the legislative process by waging a PR war.

Tyrannical rule by the majority party began well before Democrats took control in the 110th Congress.  While in the minority, House Democrats decried their treatment at the hands of the GOP majority.  In 2004, Pelosi, then-minority leader, authored a “minority bill of rights” that argued that the minority party should have the right to offer their own legislative alternatives, among other rights.

In the majority, Democrats’ attitude changed.  On the opening day of the Congress, newly elected Speaker Pelosi announced, “I accept this gavel in the spirit of partnership, not partisanship, and look forward to working with you, Mr. Boehner, and the Republicans in the Congress for the good of the American people.”  Soon after, Democrats precluded Republicans from offering any amendments to the six bills that comprised their “first 100 hours agenda,” setting the stage for another Congress characterized by tight majority party control. 

Kline isn’t the only Minnesota Republican actively protesting Democrats’ agenda control.  Michele Bachmann recently filed a discharge petition to circumvent Democratic party leaders and bring legislation to the floor sponsored by Republican Don Young of Alaska that would result in the “exploration, development, and production of the oil and gas resources of the Coastal Plain of Alaska.” 

The discharge petition is one of a few procedural mechanisms available to members to bring legislation to the floor without leadership support.  If 218 members sign a discharge petition for a particular bill or resolution, the legislation is brought to the House floor for a vote.  From the 1930s to the early 1970s, discharge petitions were most often used by majority party Democrats to circumvent conservative Democratic committee chairmen who bottled up liberal legislation in their committees.  Today, discharge petitions are a tool of the minority party, but they are rarely successful; attaining 218 signatures requires support from majority party members, and majority party leaders strongly discourage their members from signing them.   

Bachmann’s petition has garnered 109 signatories so far, including Kline’s. With little chance of attracting enough signatures from Democrats, it is unlikely to succeed.  It does, however, help clarify differences between the parties’ positions and establishes Bachmann as one of the GOP leaders on this issue.  (Although given the obscurity of this procedural mechanism, her petition has not gotten much attention beyond Capitol Hill.)

Only one discharge petition was successful during the 12 years of Republican control in the House.  After many failed attempts, in 2002 reformers used a discharge petition to bring the House version of the Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act, authored by Connecticut Republican Chris Shays and Massachusetts Democrat Marty Meehan, to the House floor over the objections of GOP leaders. It was not easy for more than a dozen Republicans to buck the party line and sign the discharge petition. (Majority leaders view the signatures as an affront to their power.) 

Behind the scenes

Reports are emerging of a small bipartisan group of members on the House and Senate side working behind the scenes on energy legislation.  Bipartisan cooperation is critical in the Senate; without the support of 60 senators to invoke cloture, energy legislation is unlikely to be considered at all. 

In the House, majority party leaders are likely tuning out the GOP protests on the House floor.  After all, they lodged similar charges in the minority on deaf ears.  Democratic leaders, however, cannot ignore the concerns coming from their own rank-and-file members who will likely return from congressional recess even more distressed about high gas prices.  Pelosi has indicated that offshore drilling may be considered as part of a broader bill that would also include the provisions most important to Democrats and opposed by Republicans. 

It is not clear that enough members on either side can tone down the partisan rhetoric long enough to hold thoughtful committee hearings with testimony from true experts, and with input from both majority and minority party members, to craft an energy policy that satisfies members of both parties and that helps solve more than just members’ reelection concerns.