Thursday, July 14, 2011

A Question of Procedure

In congress, ordinary procedure calls for a bill to be submitted to committees having jurisdiction over the subject area. Once the committees have amended the bill, if they approve, then the bill will go to the floor to be amended again, then voted up or down (or sometimes pulled from consideration).

Watching the Congress and the President wrestle over the debt ceiling and the deficit is like watching bad theater. None of this is business as usual. There are 435 members in the House of Representatives, and 100 senators in the Senate. Each is assigned to various committees and subcommittees. The budget committees have proper jurisdiction over the level of appropriations, and should be the ones doing the heavy lifting in this time of "crisis." They are not, and so we have stepped away, yet again, from normal procedure.

I say "yet again" because Speaker Pelosi bypassed the committees several times to get what she wanted. This represents yet another critical breakdown in the legislative process.

What should be happening? How about this:

1) The Democrats in the House draft a revenue bill plus debt ceiling increase and work to bring it to the floor for a vote. The Republicans let them, knowing that they have the overwhelming "Nay" votes.

2) The Senate cannot constitutionally bring forward a revenue bill, so the Democrat-controlled Senate is limited to formulating and voting on a spending reduction plus debt ceiling increase bill. The Republicans work to shape the bill, but do not filibuster.

3) The House proceeds to consider Republican and/or Democrat spending reduction plus debt ceiling increase bills. One of these will pass, probably the Republican bill.

4) The two chambers appoint a joint committee to reconcile the two bills. Many concessions are discussed, and either the committee comes to agreement or it does not. If it comes to agreement, then both chambers attempt to pass the jointly-revised bill. Otherwise, the bill is dead.

5) If both chambers pass the revised bill, then it goes to the President for signature. If he doesn't like it, he vetoes it. Otherwise, he lets it pass into law.

6) If the President vetoes the bill, then the Congress must vote to override it. To muster veto-proof support, the bill must be palatable to 2/3 of each chamber, a good definition of bipartisanship.

7) If Congress cannot override the veto, then the bill is dead.

So, at which point in the process is it who's fault if the bill does not pass? In truth, everyone's prints are all over the corpse, and all are responsible. Republicans are responsible if they produce a bill that the Senate cannot reconcile to. Democrats are responsible if they produce a bill that the House cannot reconcile to. The President is responsible if a reasonable majority approve a critical bill and he vetoes it.

The American people aren't supposed to know the ins and outs of legislative procedure. What's in the Constitution is a good enough, high-level description. But we should know that the procedure is fair and representative, and that it is deviated from only in times of great national danger.

What is happening now is a government-made national danger. It is shameful that reckless spending and borrowing have occurred and have now brought us to this point. It is imperative to re-infuse the process with representativeness and fairness.

Following an expedited form of the process above would give Democrats in the House something that Speaker Pelosi refused to give Republicans in the House: a fair chance to have their legislation voted up or down. If they want tax increases, then let them try to muster enough support for a vote. If it fails, proceed with the only option that remains: spending reductions.

Above all, let the voice of the people, through their Representatives in the House, be heard by the Senate and the President. Let the opposition stand aside when they lose the vote. Let the victor move forward confidently and with humility when they win the vote.

Maybe then, we'll get a functioning legislative branch.

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