Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., the minority whip, dismisses the current House Republican agenda as “cud,” the regurgitated food that cows chew a second time. More politely, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., calls it “warmed-over stew.”
At the very least, House floor action the week of May 31 had an unmistakable air of summer reruns.
Republican leaders intent on showing that they are promoting job creation scheduled votes on two bills (HR 4409, HR 4411) intended to increase the ranks of “highly qualified” teachers that were virtually identical to legislation the chamber passed in 2003. The leaders also brought up a bill (HR 444) to create “personal re-employment accounts” for jobless workers that had been a centerpiece of the Bush administration’s 2003 economic stimulus package. Congress did not include funding for the initiative in the fiscal 2004 budget resolution. (2003 CQ Weekly, p. 568)
Democrats responded to the GOP tactic by reviving one of their top labor priorities, using the floor debate on the re-employment accounts to propose extending supplemental benefits for jobless workers who have exhausted their customary 26 weeks of state aid. (CQ Weekly, p. 388)
Republicans used their majority status to prevail, writing a rule (H Res 656) governing debate on the re-employment accounts bill that bundled the three GOP measures into a single package upon passage. That approach served the dual purpose of filling up most of the week’s floor schedule and demonstrating that the House GOP can move bills on issues that matter to voters, unlike lawmakers in the more closely divided Senate.
The GOP Arsenal
House Republicans have passed three such packages in the last month. The bundling of similarly themed bills has become so common that GOP aides refer to it as “MIRV-ing,” after the military abbreviation for multiple-warhead nuclear missiles.
But the tactic mystifies and increasingly annoys House Democrats. They note that the Senate has yet to act on any of the House-passed bills, before or after they were combined.
Democrats contend that the rules bundling the bills stifle debate. And they say the pattern of revisiting old proposals wastes floor time that could be better spent considering new bills.
“I think they’ve run out of ideas, I think they’ve run out of gas, I think they’ve run out of initiatives,” said Rep. Robert Menendez, of New Jersey, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. “Their way is to regurgitate that which we have already passed, but not achieve legislative success. [The strategy] is the equivalent of trying to sit on the ball at the end of the game and hope you win.”
Republicans say the bills address the concerns of many Americans, adding that Democrats are so obsessed with the legislative process they are overlooking the results.
“I’d be willing to make a prediction that not one American will cast their vote for Congress this year based on MIRV-ing,” said Jonathan Grella, spokesman for House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas. “Part of the advantage of being a Democrat in the minority these days is you can do a whole lot of griping and don’t have to do much governing.”
To showcase their agenda, Republicans have matched bills — and packages of bills — to weekly themes.
House GOP leaders tried to address the plight of those without health insurance the week of May 10 when they brought up new, slightly reworded versions of bills dealing with medical malpractice suits and health insurance that had been voted on earlier in this Congress. None are expected to pass the Senate. (CQ Weekly, p. 1152)
The week of May 17, Republican leaders unveiled a package of five bills — some dating from last year — built around the theme of cutting bureaucratic red tape. The measures eventually were passed individually and rolled into one bill (HR 2728) that would relax workplace safety regulation and reduce government paperwork demands on businesses. (CQ Weekly, p. 1214)
Over the course of four weeks in April and May, House GOP leaders also brought up and passed four tax bills to emphasize the party’s preference for cutting taxes. All four face a doubtful future in the Senate, where Finance Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, plans to move a package of tax cuts rather than follow a piecemeal approach. (CQ Weekly, p. 1206)
Republican leaders the week of May 31 decided to promote a theme of “lifelong learning” in what they said was an effort to help Americans struggling in the turbulent economy find new jobs and return to work quickly. To illustrate the theme, the House GOP moved three seemingly disparate pieces of legislation as a single bill.
Lawmakers brought up the re-employment account bill, which would change the way jobless workers receive government support. The measure would authorize stipends of up to $3,000 to help jobless workers pay education, transportation, child care and other expenses. The Bush administration proposed spending $50 million in 2005 on these re-employment accounts.
“This bill is about empowering Americans to find good-paying jobs, and giving individuals the tools and resources they need to help them re-enter the workforce,” said bill sponsor Jon Porter, R-Nev. The bill was passed June 3 by a party-line 213-203 vote. (House Vote 225, p. 1366)
House Democrats opposed the measure, saying it was ineffective and condescending. However, they failed in a procedural effort to force consideration of their counterproposal to offer federal jobless benefits to individuals who have used up their state aid.
Dale E. Kildee, D-Mich., moved to send the re-employment account bill back to the Education and Workforce Committee with 13 weeks of supplemental federal unemployment aid for workers who exhausted their first 26 weeks of benefits as of Dec. 20. The motion was rejected by a party-line 199-216 vote. (House Vote 224, p. 1366)
On June 2, the House passed by voice vote a bill (HR 4409) that would tighten standards for teacher training programs at colleges and universities and a measure (HR 4411) that would provide assistance for graduate teaching studies in certain disciplines. The rule for debate on the re-employment accounts bill, adopted 220-196, provided that upon passage of the three bills, they would be combined as one (HR 444) and sent to the Senate. (House Vote 217, p. 1364)
While Democrats were upset with the GOP policy initiatives, they saved some of their bitterest criticism for the procedural rules Republicans imposed on the chamber.
Democrats criticized the bundling of two non-controversial measures with the much more polarizing re-employment accounts bill, saying the package should have moved through the normal committee process.
“Anything anyone was ever taught about how a bill is passed is over,” said Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, D-N.Y., a Rules Committee member. “They just grind it up like sausage and stuff it in a new casing.”
It is common for the minority party in the House to criticize the ways the majority uses the Rules Committee, which has the power to strictly control floor debates. But Slaughter, who is in her ninth term, insists that Democrats, when they controlled the House, did not use rules to combine bills as Republicans are doing. Other Democrats agreed.
The practice is merely a “management tool,” said Johanna Maney, a Republican spokeswoman for the Rules Committee. She said the procedure is not new, though she acknowledged that Republicans are turning to it with greater frequency.
House GOP leaders, she said, “are wanting to move a lot of things together. We send millions of things over [to the Senate] that they never pick up. These are things we think are important and need to be enacted.”
Writing rules that bundle several bills into one holds a practical advantage, GOP aides say. Should the Senate pass any part of the legislation, the House might be able to force a conference on the entire package. For example, if the Senate were to strip out the House’s language and pass either of the bipartisan education bills alone as HR 444, conferees would still have to negotiate on the more contentious re-employment accounts bill.
“It makes it difficult when you bundle [bipartisan bills] with others that are outrageous,” Menendez said.
“We’re not here to give the Democrats an easy day at the office,” DeLay spokesman Grella responded.
But with the Senate unlikely to consider any of the House-passed bills, the political message coming from their passage becomes more important.
“These are good issues, individually wrapped,” Grella said. “They’re also attractive in the larger context.”
The drawback for the GOP is that Democrats get another chance to blast bills they opposed the first time around. Said Menendez: “As [Republicans] do this, it gives us a chance to replay all of the shortcomings of the legislation, and it’s an opportunity to say how devoid of ideas and solutions they are.”