Congress finally reached a solution to the debt crisis. It is now up to us to evaluate the rules that contributed to the lengthy political stalemate. But sometimes, the rules themselves can create the problems. Here are three procedural rules that have played a role in dragging out the current fiasco.
1. The Cantor Rule.
Think Progress reported earlier this week that two hours before the shutdown, House Republicans held one of the most significant but under-reported votes this year. The vote amended House Rule 22 Clause 4, which previously read, “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.” With the passage of “House Resolution 368,” the House GOP took away from any member of the House the privilege of motioning for a vote on any bill (but really the bill to avoid a shutdown), and gave that power exclusively to Eric Cantor. The formal text of the amendment reads, “Section 2 of the rule provides that any motion pursuant to Clause 4 of rule XXII relating to the H.J. Res. 59 may be offered only by the Majority Leader or his designee.” Two hours later, the government shut down.
2. The filibuster.
Derived from the Dutch word meaning “pirate,” the filibuster tactic allows the minority party in the Senate to prolong debate on a piece of legislation to significantly delay its passage, and ultimately force the bill’s sponsors to rewrite it or scrap it to appease the challengers. According to The Week, in December 2012, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) even filibustered his own bill to raise the debt ceiling, after realizing that it was favorable to President Barack Obama.
A filibuster can only be ended by a cloture vote, which usually requires 60 Senators. According to The New Yorker, “the majority sought cloture 58 times from the period 1917 to 1970. Since President Obama’s inauguration, the Democratic majority in the senate has sought cloture more than 250 times.”
The most frightening aspect of the filibuster is the procedural rule that allows the mere “threat” of a filibuster to block debate. Logically, those in the majority should be able to force the filibustering minority to actually carry out the threat to “talk a piece of legislation to death.” This rarely happens, thanks to a little-known thing called the “quorum rule.” Senate rules require a quorum of 51 present senators for normal business to take place. Because this never happens (and is subject for a column of its own), the Senate operates under “presumptive quorum” and essentially pretends that a quorum is present in order to operate daily.
According to the Senate’s standing rules, in the middle of a filibuster speech, the speaker can suggest absence of a quorum, and force a roll call — if 51 Senators are not present (which they would not be in the middle of a hypothetical 2 a.m. filibuster), the Senate automatically adjourns for the day, and the filibuster is allowed to resume the following morning.
The Senate rules should be amended to only allow a speaker to suggest absence of a quorum during normal operating hours, say from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. This would allow the majority to force the minority to actually filibuster, though still protecting the need for senators to be present for daily business.
3. The Hastert Rule.
It’s easy to cringe when referring to this as a “rule.” Even the former House speaker for whom it is named, Dennis Hastert, has acknowledged “there really wasn’t a ‘Hastert Rule.’” Simply, the “rule” originates from Hastert’s decision in 2003 to not bring a bill to a vote in the House because it lacked the votes of the majority party. The Chicago Sun Times reported that Speaker of the House John Boehner has to break the “Hastert Rule” and bring a bill to resolve the fiscal negotiations to a vote due its intransigence bears mentioning. Earlier this year, Politico reported that Boehner said he would not bring comprehensive immigration reform to a vote without the support of the majority of Republicans in the House. The Hastert Rule should be treated with as much political significance as the underwear Obama sports at the State of the Union.
Exposing the preposterous procedural rules that make our government even more dysfunctional is necessary. It’s time for America to throw the challenge flag.
Nathaniel Haas is a sophomore majoring in economics and political science. His column “A House Divided” runs Thursdays.
Follow Nathaniel on Twitter @Haas4Prez2036