A Better Way to Legislate
By David S. Broder
Sunday, July 4, 2004; Page B07
In its final act before the Independence Day break, the House of Representatives rejected proposals from Republicans and Democrats designed to control federal spending and future budget deficits. Once again partisanship prevented action on a subject of national importance.
If this were an isolated instance, it would be bad enough. The upshot of the latest impasse is that Congress will almost certainly make its spending decisions this year without the benefit of an overall fiscal plan. The budget resolution that is supposed to serve that function never emerged in final form and must be added to the long list of other measures -- including an energy bill and a welfare reform measure -- that have been sidetracked.
It is against this background that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi offered last month an outline of a better way to approach the work of Congress -- an approach she promises to follow in the event that Democrats regain the majority in November's elections.
The San Francisco Democrat is as partisan as they come, but her reform agenda has significance beyond its implied rebuke to the now-dominant Republicans. She has set up a standard by which Democrats can be judged if and when the party ratios are reversed. And most, if not all, of the pledges she made constitute a checklist of changes needed to cure the debilitating paralysis that afflicts Capitol Hill. They are common-sense things that voters of both parties would think auto- matic -- but that are now frequently violated or ignored.
For example, Pelosi said that "there should be regular consultations among the elected leaders of both parties to discuss scheduling, administration and operations of the House." In past times, with speakers such as Tom Foley and minority leaders such as Bob Michel, meetings of this kind were routine. Now communications between Speaker J. Dennis Hastert and Pelosi are sporadic and unproductive.
Similar meetings should take place between the chairman and ranking minority member of each committee, Pelosi said; now, some committees do that, but others do not.
The minority party should be given one-third of each committee's budget and office space; that is the prevailing pattern, but Pelosi says it should be mandatory.
Legislation should be developed in open hearings and markup sessions at the subcommittee and committee level, not, as has happened with some frequency, with drafts sent down in near-final form from the office of the speaker or the majority leader.
Except under rare circumstances, bills should be open to amendment from either side of the House during floor debate. These days the Rules Committee, which sets the terms for floor debate, routinely rejects amendments from the Democratic side, preventing alternative ideas from seeing the light of day. The Rules Committee has become fond of burning the midnight oil. Often it is 1 or 2 in the morning when it announces the matters the House will take up at 10 a.m. the same day. Pelosi would require a 24-hour period for members to acquaint themselves with the issue on the floor.
Further, she would insist on enforcing the normal 15-minute period for floor votes. Notoriously, the Republican leadership held open the roll call on the Medicare prescription drug bill for almost three hours during one post-midnight session, until finally enough people were pressured into voting yes to avoid a politically embarrassing defeat. Nor was that the only such abuse.
And, finally, Pelosi would require that House-Senate conference committees, where the final version of legislation is hammered out, meet at least once a week, with notice to all members. On the Medicare bill, the energy bill and the Federal Aviation Administration bill -- to cite only three examples -- after a first, pro-forma session open to Republicans and Democrats, the Republicans excluded most or all the Democrats while they worked privately with the White House to rewrite the bills.
Republicans point out that Democrats did not always scrupulously follow these fine principles during the 40 years they ran the House.
But the abuses were rarer before Republicans gained control in 1994 -- and in any case, Congress now has a pledge that higher standards will be the norm in the unlikely event that Democrats come back in November. As Democratic Rep. Ben Cardin of Maryland, who worked with Pelosi on the declaration, says, "If nothing else, her statement will deter those Democrats who, in the flush of victory, would be inclined to say, 'We'll treat the Republicans the way they treated us.' "
The subject of the referendum that British Prime Minister Tony Blair has promised to hold is not, as I wrote recently, joining the European Union, to which Britain already belongs, but rather accepting the newly adopted constitution of the E.U.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company