your parliamentary procedure sucks

I’ve seen about a million Facebook posts and tweets about the democracy-suspending, Reichstag-burning coup the Tea Party Republikkkans brought about on October 1, citing the YouTube video of Representative Chris Van Hollen (D-attention) standing in the face of Republican tyranny like a latter day Tank Man. The problem is that, as usual, it’s a whole mess of hyperbole.

The Popular Story

Rep. Van Hollen heroically tried to end the impasse on Saturday, October 12 by asking to bring the Senate version of the 2014 budget up for an immediate vote. The House Speaker pro tempore, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), told him that the House had already passed a resolution (H.R. 368) that allows only the Majority Leader or his minions to bring the bill for an up-or-down vote. Rep. Van Hollen was shocked by this…though he somehow had props in his hands ready to go for this exchange.

Then the internet exploded.

The Actual Timeline

Here’s the timeline of events:

  • September 20: The House passes House Joint Resolution 59, which continues funding the government for the fiscal year 2014 until December 15, 2013. This resolution eliminates all funding for the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA, or “Obamacare” for those of you who prefer that).
  • September 21: The Senate amends H.J. Res. 59, changing the expiration date to November 15 and stripping §137 (debt prioritization) and §138 (defunding PPACA).
  • September 28: The House passed two perfecting amendments (amendments to the Senate amendments) that 1) repeal the medical device tax, and 2) again delay the PPACA, respectively.
  • September 30: The Senate tabled the House perfecting amendments.
  • October 1: The House voted for the notorious H.R. 368. The text of the bill states that:

    Resolved, That the House hereby (1) takes from the Speaker’s table the joint resolution (H.J. Res. 59) making continuing appropriations for fiscal year 2014, and for other purposes, with the House amendment to the Senate amendment thereto, (2) insists on its amendment, and (3) requests a conference with the Senate thereon.

    SEC. 2. Any motion pursuant to clause 4 of rule XXII relating to House Joint Resolution 59 may be offered only by the Majority Leader or his designee.

    Rule XXII, clause 4 says that

    4. When the stage of disagreement has been reached on a bill or resolution with House or Senate amendments, a motion to dispose of any amendment shall be privileged.

    So when there’s a House-Senate deadlock, any motions to remove amendments (which presumably are the reason for the deadlock) get special precedence. That is, anyone can interrupt proceedings to get rid of an amendment.

    So in H.R. 368, the House resolves 1) to continue funding the government with the House version of the bill, and asks that the Senate meet for a conference committee to determine this, and 2) to suspend the rule by which any House member can interrupt proceedings to shed amendments (which is what adopting the Senate version of the bill would do) while this is going on.

  • October 12 Rep. Van Hollen asks to pick up the Senate version of the bill (the “clean” resolution) off the table and pass it. Rep. Chaffetz says no.

In other words…

So had Section 2 not been passed, Rep. Van Hollen would have taken a bill that was currently being debated between the leadership of the two houses of Congress and passed the other house’s version. In the unlikely event that the member of the minority would’ve been successful in the vote, he would have basically hijacked the legislative process to ram through a bill that was still being hashed out by grown-ups.

First, yes, it sucks that this process has taken so long. In my opinion, Senate Majority Leader Reid shares some of the blame in the impasse—after all, he’s opposing a funding resolution that had more votes than the PPACA had in the first place. But regardless of your side in the budget debate, let’s admit that this is the process by which bills become law, including funding bills. If the Congressman wants to bypass conference committees, then by all means, he can pass a resolution when he’s in a leadership role (which he theoretically will be the next time the Dems have a House majority) to require a 2/3ds vote to suspend House Rule XXII. Spoiler alert: he probably won’t.

Second, let’s correct some of the rhetoric:

  1. The House GOP did not “guarantee a shutdown” with H.R. 368. The House guaranteed that they’d be able to go a conference committee with the Senate without the bill changing or getting passed while they were in the middle of negotiating.
  2. This is not an unprecedented move. The House leadership—regardless of party—often changes the rules to make the legislative process go more smoothly. Newsflash: members of Congress want to get the hell out of the chambers quickly to get a drink as much as anyone else. Anything to get this process going faster is encouraged.
  3. This is not rigging the rules. The rules were changed by following still other rules. Was the Rep. Van Hollen gagged and tied to a railroad track while H.R. 368 was passed? How did he manage to lose seven fellow Democrats to the other side of the vote on this resolution? Only when the shutdown became real, and Rep. Van Hollen had a chance to score some political points, did H.R. 368 magically become THE END OF DEMOCRACY AS WE KNOW IT!!!111

Finally, the fact that I had to type all this up, and could find not one voice on the right explaining that Speaker John Boehner is not an orange Snively Whiplash is evidence enough that the GOP has no idea what the hell it’s doing, and has all the strategy of a classic wildcard. With zero PR efforts on their side, this clearly was a Republican political suicide mission.

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