Monday, July 20, 2009

Five Committees, Two Houses, One Bill

All that old-fashioned "How A Bill Becomes A Law" stuff from elementary school had taught me that a bill had to make it through committee in both houses of Congress to become a law. What I didn't know until this year is that health care reform will have to make it through five committees -- three in the House and two in the Senate. It's quite the obstacle course, but I'm impressed at how well we're doing so far. The three House committees have agreed on legislation, as has the HELP committee. We're still waiting on Finance.

A lot of my favorite bloggers complain about the undemocratic nature of the US Senate. It radically underrepresents people from populated states, and allows a minority of 40 Senators to obstruct legislation. These complaints are entirely justified, and the Senate is in fact looking like the tightest bottleneck in passing legislation. But it's hard to see how we can take down an institution that can only be eliminated by a Constitutional amendment that it would have to pass with a 2/3 supermajority of its own members. Reforms in committee structure will at least have support from Speaker and Majority leader types, however much committee chairs will oppose them. As a way to unclog our ridiculously bottlenecky political system, I'd suggest that as a way to start.


Nick Beaudrot said...

Don't forget the Conference Committee!

Nick Beaudrot said...

And I'm sure somehow the House Ag Committee will work their way into the picture.

Blue said...

It's not clear the conf committee is a huge bottleneck in bills going forward, just a very weird and dangerous thing.

Committee reform has happened before, as MY often points out. It's also worth remembering FILIBUSTER reform has also happened several times before. I think either are as likely to happen now.

I ponder how much of past removing obstacles was dependent on the non-partisan nature of the time.

Neil Sinhababu said...

Yeah, I was going to mention conference committee here too, but then I realized that was just an artifact of bicameralism. And an anti-bottlenecky one, so I guess I'm okay with having it in our current system. (If everything had to pass the House and Senate in the same form on the first go with the threat of the filibuster, it'd be even harder to pass stuff.) But I agree that you should build systems so as to avoid it.

low-tech cyclist said...

I've got a weird idea I keep bringing up here and there for getting rid of the filibuster that I'd love to hear why it wouldn't work.

It would require 51 Senate Dems who really wanted to get rid of it to make it work, but if it had that level of support, I can't see why it would fail.

As of this morning, I've even got a catchy name for it: I call it the "Make 'Em Filibuster Bait-and-Switch."

A number of us spent most of 2007 and 2008 wondering why Harry Reid didn't force the GOP to actually filibuster popular bills that the GOP had blocked cloture on. Late last year, someone on one of the major blogs (can't remember who) explained why this wouldn't work: it only takes 2-3 GOP Senators to maintain a filibuster indefinitely, but since they can call for a quorum at any time, the Dems would have to keep 51 Senators around to force those two GOP Senators to keep talking. With the balance of effort tilted that strongly in favor of the filibustering party, it's obvious why the majority never forces the minority to filibuster.

But let's say, for hypothetical purposes, that the Dems were trying to pass some bill they wanted really, really badly, but the GOP defeated a cloture vote - and then the Dems went through the motions of making 'em filibuster, ostensibly to get GOP assholishness on TV. The 51 aforementioned Dems stay in or near the Senate chamber, available for quorum calls, while two or three GOP Senators drone on through the night, and the rest go home to sleep.

THEN: the Dem majority moves to table the bill that is being filibustered. Tabling is a privileged motion under Rule 22, and the Dems have a quorum and a majority, so it's tabled.

NEXT: they introduce a rules change effectively abolishing the filibuster, and immediately follow its introduction with a cloture motion.

"But they need 60 votes for cloture!" I hear you say. No, they don't! Cloture on rules changes is treated differently under Rule 22: rather than requiring 3/5 of ALL Senators, for cloture on a rules change you need a 2/3 majority - and here's the kicker - of those present and voting.

And right then, in the middle of the night, as they force the GOP to filibuster, the Dems have a 51-3 majority of those present and voting. They can introduce, then invoke cloture on, any rules change they want.

So they invoke cloture on abolishing the filibuster, and then under Rule 22, there's still some more debate, but it's time-limited. After a few days, the rules change abolishing the filibuster comes to a vote, and (having already overcome the cloture hurdle) it passes by majority vote.

THE END. Of the filibuster.

SO: Why wouldn't this work? Any thoughts?

Neil Sinhababu said...

I remember you bringing that up, Cyclist! And unless somebody here can explain why it won't' work, I'll be happy to put it on the front page.

low-tech cyclist said...

Turns out I wasn't looking closely enough at $#@! Rule 22. Seems there's a time lag between invoking cloture and actually holding the cloture vote:

"at any time a motion signed by sixteen Senators, to bring to a close the debate upon any measure, motion, other matter pending before the Senate, or the unfinished business, is presented to the Senate, the Presiding Officer, or clerk at the direction of the Presiding Officer, shall at once state the motion to the Senate, and one hour after the Senate meets on the following calendar day but one, he shall lay the motion before the Senate..."

Bolding mine. The construction "the following calendar day but one" is sufficiently archaic that even a fiftysomething like me is unfamiliar with how to unravel it, but clearly the majority can't say, "let's have a cloture vote," then just turn around and vote. Instead, the GOP gets to wait until the next day or the day after, or whatever, and make sure everyone's present for the cloture vote.

Now maybe the Dems could pull this stunt just as the Senate is headed into recess, and force the GOP Senators to fly back from all over the country...

(Yeah, that still wouldn't work, but it would annoy the hell out of the GOP.)

Neil Sinhababu said...

Ah, ok, cool.