A few weeks ago, the U.S. Senate voted down a Republican attempt to repeal last year’s health-care reform law. You may remember this, even though it rated only a mention on the evening news. What I’m virtually certain you don’t remember is how the Republicans, who are in the Senate minority, even brought the issue up.
I’ll tell you. It was an amendment to a completely unrelated bill on aviation policy. And the repeal measure came to a vote because the Democratic majority agreed that it could.
This, in fact, was the real news out of Congress that day. Under an agreement between Democrat Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, and Republican Mitch McConnell, the minority leader, Republicans allowed the aviation bill to the floor with no threat of a filibuster, while the Democrats, who set the rules of the debate, allowed them to offer plenty of amendments — even one as politically unappetizing to them as repealing health-care reform.
And here’s what’s most notable about the whole thing: the sky didn’t fall. The health-care amendment got voted down, the Senate moved on to the substance of the aviation bill, and senators on both sides agreed that the atmosphere in the Senate had benefited from this break in the ongoing partisan wars.
There’s a lesson here, and it’s a simple one: Basic fairness in legislative procedure is essential to the smooth running of Congress and to the achievement of consensus.
Ideally, when a bill comes forward, both sides should offer amendments that require members of Congress to vote on the major policy issues it presents. This does not mean you have to allow every amendment every legislator wants to present — that would produce a chaotic overload. Instead, it’s the committees’ job to pare away the minor amendments, as well as ones drawn up simply to score political points, and to present to the full House or Senate for a vote the major policy issues the pending bill raises. Then the bill would go to the floor, the issues it raises would be debated, and senators and congressmen would go on record with how they stand.
This is not how either the Senate or the House has operated for a long time. As Carl Hulse of The New York Times noted in his report on the aviation bill, under the usual scenario “Democrats would have tried to bring up the bill but then taken parliamentary steps to block amendments, to prevent Republicans from having an opportunity to make a political point. In retaliation, Republicans would have forced Democrats to assemble 60 votes just to get the bill to the floor. Then days, if not weeks, would have passed with nothing much transpiring as lawmakers looked for a way out of their procedural morass.”
The result of that sort of games-playing has become wearingly familiar to Americans: fights, delays, filibusters, charges and countercharges, hot rhetoric, bruised egos, polarization, and the alarming deterioration of Congress’ standing as a democratic institution.
All of this has happened because the majority has chosen not just to overrule the minority, but to keep things easier by preventing it from bringing up its concerns for debate. Years ago, when I served in the House, Democrats ran the body. We would meet to plan legislative tactics and discuss which amendments we’d allow; invariably, someone would say, “Hey, we’ve got the votes, let’s just ram it through.”
It happened under Democrats, and when Republicans took control, it happened then, too: the majority developed the habit of denying the minority a chance to amend, a chance to have a voice, a chance to force a vote on the major tough issues presented by a bill, a chance to present an alternative to the pending bill — and the minority reacted with anger and the legislative equivalent of scorched-earth tactics.
What has been missing in all this is basic fairness — and the realization that it is a fundamental part of what Congress should be about. If you give each party a fair and ample hearing, allow it to bring forward key amendments that are important to its members, and actually permit Congress to consider the issues of the day, the proceedings don’t just benefit the legislative process, they also allow the American people to learn from the policy debate.
So the Senate is to be commended for taking a break from the partisan wars. Let’s hope it lasts, and that the House follows its example. We now have an entire generation of politicians on Capitol Hill who’ve known little besides the frustration and anger of “let’s ram it through” politics, and they need a chance to learn what fair process looks like — and how much they might be able to get done if they allow it to flourish.
Lee Hamilton is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.