The Republican Railroad

In July of 1994, just four months before Republicans swept the elections and won control of Congress, then-Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) blasted the Democratic leadership for trying to ram health-care reform legislation through Congress without giving the minority party a chance to be heard. "It is fundamentally wrong for America," he said, "for people who are supposed to be elected every two years, who are supposed to be sensitive to the concerns and the needs of the American people, to deliberately and ruthlessly run roughshod over the American people."

But in the eight years that House Republicans have been in the majority, they've perfected the methods they once denounced -- and backed off promises to improve the system. On bills such as welfare reform, the extension of unemployment benefits and the recent omnibus appropriations, Republicans have stopped Democrats from offering amendments on the floor and, in effect, made the House a one-horse show. "They've really shut down the place," says Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), a 12-term veteran. "The House of Representatives is not in any way a deliberative body anymore."

Even some Republicans are complaining. Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) told The Hill he was furious that party leaders "waived the rules giving us three days to look" at the 3,000-page appropriations bill in February. Rep. Gil Gutknecht (R-Minn.) said the Republican decision not to allow Democrats to offer amendments on a prescription-drug bill last year was "indefensible."

The situation is no better in the Senate. At the end of February, Committee on the Judiciary Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) violated a decades-old rule whereby at least one senator from the minority party has to vote with the majority before debate on judicial nominations can be cut off in committee. Democrats honored this rule when they were in the majority, and Republicans repeatedly used it to block nominees. In recent committee proceedings, no Democrats moved to end debate, but Hatch ended discussion and sent the nominations of three circuit court judges to the Senate floor. "I'm not going to put up with any more obstructionism," he huffed.

Republicans have also talked about using the budget process to push substantive changes that would weaken Medicaid and Head Start by turning them from federal entitlements into capped block grants. Most changes in a budget bill require 60 votes instead of a simple majority. And because no filibusters are allowed on the budget, it's the perfect vehicle for extreme Republican measures.

The budget process was intended to allocate funds to federal programs, not to substitute for the process of legislating. In effect, Republicans are circumventing the normal means of enacting legislation, in which proposed changes are vetted in committee and ordinary citizens, experts, and political supporters and opponents have a chance to weigh in. To grease the skids, Budget Committee Chairman Don Nickles (R-Okla.) has purged from his committee party moderates such as Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) who might have had second thoughts. And it could all happen very quickly: Nickles has said he wants the Senate to act on the budget by mid-April.

Of course, while ruling the House for 40 years, Democrats used their fair share of procedural tactics to push bills through. During this time, Republicans often said Democrats were "gagging" GOP members by stopping them from offering amendments on the floor. But a recent report from Democrats on the House Committee on Rules -- which decides how much time bills are given on the floor and who can offer amendments -- said Republican actions are "far more egregious than any taken by Democrats in the past." A few cases in point: When the House considered the No Child Left Behind Act, only eight of the 77 amendments Democrats offered were debated; just five of the 106 amendments they put forth on the Securing America's Future Energy Act were heard. Keep in mind, too, that the committee has nine Republicans to four Democrats. As the Democrats' report states, "We consider this trend to be dangerously close to a willful silencing of those voices that do not share the point of view of the Republican leadership."

The situation is only getting worse. In the past, Democrats were at least able to count on getting their views across at the committee level. But rules adopted at the start of the 108th Congress limited their ability to force votes even there. Committee chairs can now postpone a vote on an amendment until they are sure they have the votes to win. That means that even though Democrats can offer alternatives at the committee level, their proposals won't necessarily get a fair hearing.

Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas), who became House majority leader in January, is largely to blame for squelching the minority opinion. His brass-knuckle tactics have made Republicans afraid to cross party leaders on procedural votes so that moderate Republicans -- a potential block of swing voters -- never have to choose on difficult, substantive amendments; they can thus avoid casting tough votes and instead toe the party line. As Frank explains it, "They vote for procedures that prevent amendments from coming to the floor. Then they vote for the bills unamended and say, 'Well, I had no choice. I would have been in favor of an amendment, but it wasn't offered.'"

The fact that Republicans actually picked up seats in last fall's election has only emboldened them, as shown by the new rule changes. As Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.), the ranking member on the House Committee on Appropriations, told The Washington Times in January, "We don't expect to win, but we do expect to be able to at least offer amendments so the two parties can define their differences."

"What are they afraid of?" House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) asks of the Republicans. "That reasonable, bipartisan solutions might prevail?"

Besides causing Democrats frustration, what's the effect of having such a one-sided debate? Plenty. In the prescription-drug bill that passed the House last June, for example, the government would have given subsidies to insurance companies and allowed them to change premiums and other coverage. The Democratic alternative, which wasn't allowed on the floor, would have given everyone the same premiums and benefits. (The GOP bill was ultimately never signed into law, but some version of it will be back later this year, and Republicans are likely to employ similar tactics.) On the omnibus appropriations bill, many lawmakers are just now finding out what exactly was in it -- even though they already voted on it. Funding for important programs such as community policing and adult job training declined. Important areas that Republicans claim to want to fund, such as education, got shortchanged.

Democrats have also been forced to vote for bills that they would otherwise oppose. Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the House minority whip, voted for the appropriations measure even though he was deeply unhappy about what he called the "worst process" he'd seen in 22 years. (By the time the bill passed the House, the current fiscal year was more than 4 months old, and lawmakers had little choice but to pass a bloated bill.)

Playing games with the rules process has another harmful effect: It increases partisan acrimony in an already contentious chamber. "It's my way or the highway, take it or leave it on this legislation," said Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) in characterizing the prevailing mood. Party-line votes are becoming increasingly common in the House. The rules changes in January -- which also included permitting lawmakers to accept free trips to "charitable" events at resorts and allowing staffers to eat free pizza catered by special-interest groups -- were approved 221-to-203. A Democratic effort to add funds to help New York City recover after September 11 and to bolster defense and homeland security in November of 2001 was defeated 216-to-211. Republicans and Democrats have little reason to try to forge consensus when they're constantly at extremes.

Yet the most disturbing result is the most far-reaching: By crafting bills that include the input of only one party, Republicans are disenfranchising Democratic lawmakers -- and the millions of people who sent them to Congress. It's a matter that concerned then-Rep. Gerald B.H. Solomon (R-N.Y.) in 1993. "The people and their representatives are not even being treated as second-class citizens; they might as well not be citizens at all given how little impact they have on shaping legislation in the House," he said. "If that is not undemocratic, I would like to know what is ... ." When Solomon became Rules Committee chairman at the start of the 104th Congress, he vowed that his committee would allow for an open amendment process in 70 percent of the bills reaching the House floor. In the 107th Congress, just 28 percent of those bills were open to amendment.

So what can Democrats do? For one thing, they can get out in front of Republican proposals. If Democrats aren't able to have as much say at the end of the process, they should make every effort to have more input at the beginning. They did that by unveiling their economic-stimulus plan before President Bush released his proposal, and also by giving a "prebuttal" to the State of the Union address. Democrats can hold more press conferences to call attention to positions that aren't getting heard on the floor, and they can raise issues more vociferously in committee.

But real change isn't likely to come until Democrats win back control of Congress, and with it the committee chairmanships and the ability to set the legislative agenda. The House, as Rutgers University political scientist Ross Baker describes it, is "one of the principal examples of majority tyranny in the United States." The minority party doesn't have many options. And with the Senate in Republican hands, House Democrats can no longer rely on their Senate counterparts to moderate bills or kill them. That means there won't be a truly open debate on Capitol Hill until at least 2005.