House Democrats' anger at heavy-handed Republican tactics reached a new level yesterday, with the chamber's top Democrat asking the House speaker to embrace a "Bill of Rights" for the minority, regardless which party it is.
In keeping with the general atmosphere of the House these days, aides to Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) said he will not respond to the two-page proposal from Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
For decades, the party in power has used House parliamentary rules to limit the minority party's ability to amend bills and shape debates. But Democrats -- in the minority for 10 years after four decades of control -- say Republicans have gone to unreasonable lengths in recent years. GOP leaders dispute this, but congressional scholars and even some rank-and-file Republicans agree in whole or in part.
Pelosi's document, which she vows to honor if Democrats regain the majority, says: "Too often, incivility and the heavy hand of the majority" have silenced Democrats and choked off "thoughtful debate." She called on the majority to let the minority offer meaningful amendments and substitutes to important bills; to limit roll-call votes to the normal 15 minutes rather than keeping them open to round up needed votes; and to let all appointees to House-Senate conference committees participate in meetings and decisions.
"When we are shut out, they are shutting out the great diversity of America," Pelosi said in an interview. "We want a return to civility; we want to set a higher standard."
Pelosi and Reps. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) and John M. Spratt Jr. (D-S.C.) cited several examples of what they consider abusive treatment by Republicans, who control the House 228 to 206 (there is one independent). A proposed $9.6 billion tobacco buyout program went not to the Agriculture Committee but to the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, they noted, where Democrats' questions and proposed amendments were ruled out of order because they did not deal directly with taxes.
"It's the all-time Catch-22," said Spratt, the assistant minority leader.
Spratt also said the powerful Rules Committee -- which decides what amendments may reach the House floor -- recently killed his proposed amendment to a $416 billion defense authorization bill. The amendment surely would have failed, he said, but earlier leadership regimes would have granted the courtesy of a debate and a vote to a 22-year veteran of the Armed Services Committee.
"That tells you where we have come to in terms of rigging votes on the House floor," Spratt said.
Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier (R-Calif.) said in an interview that Democrats are crying about the process because they are losing policy debates over job creation and progress in Iraq. His mission as chairman, he said, is "to move our [Republican] agenda, and to do it in the fairest and most responsible way possible. And I do it in that order."
Dreier, who spent 14 years in the minority before his party's 1995 House takeover, said: "Yes, we have done, as we have had the responsibility of governing, some of the things we criticized when we were in the minority." But he said he feels the Hastert leadership team has struck a fair balance.
Hastert dismissed the Democrats' complaints in an interview yesterday. "I have looked at our record over the years," he said, and compared it with Republicans' ability to offer meaningful amendments during the 40 years of Democratic House rule. "I will hold up our record any day."
Some independent analysts say Democrats' complaints have merit.
Republicans "have taken every one of the techniques that Democrats employed when they were in the majority, and ratcheted them up to another level," said Norman J. Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the moderate-to-conservative American Enterprise Institute. "Republicans are now at a point where, reveling in the power they have, they are using techniques to jam bills through even when they don't have to . . . simply because they can."
Dreier said Republicans virtually always allow the House to vote on whether "to recommit" a GOP-drafted bill to committee and replace it with a Democratic version. "It is a bite at the apple" that Democrats in the 1980s often denied Republicans, he said.
But Democrats and several analysts say recommital votes are largely meaningless. Hastert's leadership team portrays them as "procedural votes" rather than matters of policy, and unwritten parliamentary rules make it essentially treasonous for lawmakers to vote against their party's leadership on procedural matters.
The inevitable party-line vote that keeps Democrats from recommitting a Republican bill "is the whole ballgame," Ornstein said, because it prevents Democrats from having a debate and a vote on the substance of their alternative proposals.
"The headiness of power has gotten to these guys more quickly than I would have expected," Ornstein said.