A little House parliamentary history: The motion to recommit goes back at least to the British Parliament and has existed in some form since the 1st Congress. A motion to recommit with instructions, as the great rules guru Don Wolfensberger has pointed out, goes back at least to 1891 and Speaker Thomas Reed (R-Maine). But that MTR was granted to a Member who was friendly to a bill, to offer a chance to clean up errors. A motion to recommit with instructions as a device for the minority to offer an alternative goes back to 1909 and the revolt led by progressive Republicans against powerful conservative Republican Speaker Joe Cannon (Ill.) to grant some rights to those opposed to bills. An MTR with instructions as a device for the minority party per se to offer an alternative goes back to 1932.
There have been many variations and refinements in the rules regarding MTRs since, including several in the 1980s and 1990s. When House Republicans took the majority in 1995 for the first time in 40 years, after several contentious years in which majority Democrats often adopted special rules restricting amendments and MTRs, their leading reformer, Rep. David Dreier, crafted a rule to make an MTR with instructions virtually automatic. As the California Republican proclaimed at the time, an era where the minority party was hampered at being able to offer its alternative vision for policy would be replaced by one where that right would be guaranteed.
Why do I bring up this history? Because the MTR is now back in the news. Twice in recent days, House Republicans have found a way to draft MTRs with instructions that have deep-sixed important bills, the first on the Home Star Energy Retrofit Act, the “cash for caulkers”; the second, last week, on the America COMPETES Act, a jobs bill focused on increasing science, research and training investment.
These MTRs have been in the news not because they represented the minority party’s alternative vision for dealing with energy policy or science and tech and jobs policy — but because they were designed to kill bills by offering red herring “gotcha” amendments, including one in the energy bill to require contractors to ensure that no employee had been convicted of child molestation and one in the jobs/tech bill to require that any federal employee who had viewed or downloaded pornography be fired. Both were attempts to force Democrats to withdraw their bills — and more importantly, to set up 30-second attack ads against vulnerable Members for supporting child molesters and pornography.
It is not easy to be in the minority in the House. House Republicans have many reasons to complain about the Democrats’ failure to apply the regular order, to give the minority opportunities to be heard and to have amendments to bills in committee and on the floor. I can see offering embarrassing or gotcha amendments to protest a majority jamming things through without minority input or treating bills in a cavalier fashion. Or offering amendments that may be embarrassing but that advance a serious party ideological interest.
But the America COMPETES reauthorization was done in a bipartisan fashion and involves a bill with little division or controversy. The original bill, when it came up in 2007, got 367 votes in the House. This version involved close cooperation between Science and Technology Chairman Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), hardly a knee-jerk partisan or authoritarian, and Michigan Republican Rep. Vernon Ehlers, one of the most thoughtful House experts on science matters. The porn measure was not raised in the committee nor brought up as a possible amendment for the bill on the floor. It was sprung at the last minute solely as a stink bomb. Among House Republicans, only Ehlers, who is retiring, voted against the MTR. When the Democrats withdrew the bill, Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) were visibly exultant.
The unfortunate fact is that the motion to recommit with instructions has for more than a decade become a hollow vehicle and a farce. Under the majority Republicans, every MTR was framed as a party-line procedural vote, and Democrats regularly failed whatever the merits of their alternative. Under the majority Democrats, the minority has in fact succeeded at several alternatives, but far more often than not the minority has eschewed the chance to use the MTR to offer constructive amendments to bills or to show a minority alternative vision, and instead has used the gotcha route. Expect a slew of attack ads portraying Members as backers of child molestation and government-subsidized porn.
A minority party concerned about legislating would use every vehicle to protest wrongful and high-handed treatment by the majority, and it would find ways to participate constructively in making better policy when the majority was fair. There has been plenty of Democratic arrogance and high-handedness. But as we have seen repeatedly on the many bills brought to the floor with strong bipartisan effort and teamwork, the committee minority members who worked inside and had their amendments accepted have then turned around and voted against their own bills.
John Boehner used to be a serious legislator. Eric Cantor is smart and a justifiably rising star in the GOP firmament. But they are becoming the Bart Simpsons of Congress, gleeful at smarmy and adolescent tactics and unable and unwilling to get serious. Instead of encouraging a constructive relationship with the serious and fair-minded legislators on the Democratic side, they are adding to the traction of their take-no-prisoners counterparts. What a shame.
Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.