A Fairer House

Wednesday, January 3, 2007

THE NEW Democratic House majority has an ambitious plan for its first 100 hours in power, from increasing the minimum wage to strengthening ethics rules to having the federal government negotiate prescription drug prices. Unfortunately, its plans don't include getting those provisions passed in the democratic fashion that the Democrats promised to adhere to once in the majority. When Republicans took over in 1995, they at least went through the motions of putting their "Contract With America" proposals through the normal committee process. Democrats under Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) have decided not to bother with that, nor to let Republicans offer amendments on the floor, nor even to put a GOP alternative up for a vote. This is exactly the kind of high-handed mistreatment that Democrats complained about, justifiably, when they were in the minority.

Democrats offer various rationales for their about-face. They say the streamlined process is necessary because they've pledged to accomplish so much in their first 100 legislative hours. But what makes living up to that self-imposed deadline -- which will stretch on for weeks, in any event -- more important than living up to their promise of procedural fairness? And why, even if that deadline is sacrosanct, couldn't Republicans at least be offered an opportunity to offer alternatives on the floor?

Democrats also argue that their proposals have been fully vetted and debated, but in fact many of them involve complex policy choices and some are new proposals. Democrats howled when Republicans moved unilaterally to change the rules governing the operations of the House ethics committee; why is it different for them to move unilaterally to change ethics rules? Questions such as whether the minimum wage increase should be combined with tax breaks for small businesses and whether the federal government should be the only party negotiating Medicare prescription prices ought to be put up for discussion and a vote. If that causes a fracture in the Democratic caucus, so be it.

Republicans, who were only too happy to strong-arm and ignore Democrats when the GOP was in the majority, are now, of course, moaning about being abused. In a nice bit of political theater, they plan to offer Ms. Pelosi's own "Minority Bill of Rights" from 2004, which would provide for, among other things, "open, full and fair debate consisting of a full amendment process."

Democrats say that they'll adhere to their previous promises once their first flurry of business is finished. We look forward to that. But if they don't reconsider, they will set an unfortunate precedent that fairness will be offered on sufferance, when the majority finds it convenient, and not as a matter of principle. That would not be a good start for the 110th Congress.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company