Winning a legislative battle isn’t only about the strength of the idea; it’s also about how well you can game the system to muscle your proposals through. Former Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) knew that well, using his advanced knowledge of arcane parliamentary procedures to push bills past opponents.
On Thursday, Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) took a cue from Byrd, reports the Examiner:
Facing a close vote during a committee hearing on the proposal to protect ex-convicts from discrimination, Barry abruptly called a recess, and the leading dissenting voices—Ward 6 Councilman Tommy Wells and Mendelson—left the room.
But Barry, who chairs the Committee on Aging and Community Affairs, quickly called the meeting back to order and asked for a vote.
When Mendelson, who isn’t a member of the committee but as chairman is allowed to participate on any panel, returned and attempted to cast his vote at 4:47 p.m., Barry replied, “Mr. Mendelson, you can’t vote. You’re not yet sworn in.”
Barry was technically right: Mendelson was officially sworn in as D.C. Council chairman some 13 minutes later. Still, Mendelson has been serving in that capacity since former Chairman Kwame Brown’s abrupt resignation in June, so under Barry’s odd interpretation, the last five months of his leadership have largely been illegitimate.
Due to Barry’s cunning parliamentary move, his bill was approved by the committee. Without it, though, it likely would have failed. Barry’s bill, which would prohibit employers or landlords from asking about criminal convictions until after a job or housing unit is offered, has drawn opposition from the business community, which said it worried about the potential for lawsuits. Mendelson had offered an alternative bill which left employers more flexibility in hiring former convicts, and it looked like his proposal would win out over Barry’s.
Barry’s victory may be for naught, though. Mendelson is now undeniably the chairman, and Barry’s bill still has to be approved by the full council. Unless, of course, Barry again channels Byrd and finds a clever way around that.