Understanding the ‘self-executing rule'

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

As the House moves toward a vote on health-care legislation, one possible route to passage involves a procedural measure called a "self-executing rule," or "deem and pass." It would allow House members to pass the Senate's bill by voting not on the measure itself, but rather a "fixes package." Here's a look at the self-executing rule and its role in Congress:

What is it?

A self-executing rule, which exists only in the House, allows for a "two for one" procedure: When the House adopts such a rule, it simultaneously agrees to dispose of a separate matter, a "self-executed provision," which is specified in the rule itself.

According to a Congressional Research Service report, this basically means that lawmakers have no opportunity to amend or vote separately on the self-executed provision. It is automatically agreed to upon passage of a related measure.

So the procedural vote on the rule is often, but not always, to change the substance of the bill before it is even called up.

When did it originate?

The self-executing rule dates to the Great Depression. It was first used on March 16, 1933, in H.R. 2820 -- "To maintain the credit of the U.S. Government." (H.Res. 63).

When and how is it used?

Self-executing rules have been used by both parties throughout the years in a number of ways. One recent example is employing it to increase the federal debt ceiling.

These rules can be as minor as making a technical correction to a bill or as major as adopting an entirely new substitute for the measure. They can be used in all kinds of instances, such as saving time on debating and voting on a minor amendment, avoiding a politically embarrassing floor vote, and ensuring majority support and passage of a bill. They have never been used to pass legislation as momentous as the $875 billion health-care package, however.

How much is it really used?

Of the 80 rules adopted by the current Congress, a third (26) have been self-executing rules.

What does it mean for the health-care legislation?

The self-executing rule is being considered by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) as one way to get a bill passed. Under that proposal, the House would prepare for a vote on a package of changes to the Senate measure by adopting a rule: Passage of the fixes signifies that lawmakers "deem" the underlying legislation to be passed.

"It's more insider and process-oriented than most people want to know," Pelosi said in a roundtable discussion with bloggers Monday. "But I like it," she said, "because people don't have to vote on the Senate bill."

-- Kenneth W. Smith Jr.

SOURCES: House Rules Committee, Congressional Research Service, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, staff reports

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