If one person suddenly seized the sole power to decide whether the U.S. government should shut down or stay open, according to his personal, partisan preference, Americans would be up in arms over the kidnapping of the democratic process, right?
The democratic process was kidnapped by Republicans (and seven Democrats) in the U.S. House of Representatives on October 1. Just as the government shutdown began, House Republicans carried out a legislative coup against the usual House rules, taking the government hostage and choosing Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia as their hostage-taker in chief. Republicans passed House Resolution 368, which, in a single opaque sentence, made Cantor judge, jury, and executioner for any possible reopening of the federal government.
Yes, it really is pretty much that simple, and almost nobody noticed at the time. Yes, Democrats (all but seven) voted against it, but quietly, very quietly. The president paid it no public attention at all. And none of the capitol’s self-important “journalists,” whose job once-upon-a-time was reporting, said a mumbling word. The public, usually the last to know about anything except natural disasters, went on about its business in its normally sullen way, disgusted with government and not all that eager to know all that much about what pain our leaders would inflict upon us next.
Only now, for reasons that are beyond mysterious, is the story getting much attention, though the attention – as in the Washington Post – is sometimes more about a viral video on the internet than the corruption and dysfunction in government the video illustrates.
It helps to rig the rules
Here’s what happened, in outline form:
The standing House Rules (48 tightly-packed pages) include a rule about bringing some controversial bills to the floor for a vote. Traditionally, any member would be allowed to bring such a bill to a vote, free of any amendments.
The Senate had passed a budget bill to extend unimpeded government operation past October 1. That bill, sometimes referred to as the “continuing resolution” was without amendment as it awaited the House vote. It was the “clean” budget bill. But Republicans wanted to dirty it up with amendments to undermine Obamacare and their other obsessions, so the last thing they wanted was a clean vote on a clean bill, a vote that any House member could call for, as of September 30. Conventional wisdom then was that the bill would pass.
The House Rules Committee, controlled by Republicans as the majority party, met in the evening of September 30 and adopted a brief bit of legislation titled House Resolution 368 (H. Res. 368). The first section, referencing the Senate budget bill (“continuing appropriations for fiscal year 2014”), resolved that the House “insists on its amendment” and “requests a conference with the Senate thereon.” (The resolution does not mention that House Republicans had been refusing to go to conference for months, why should it?)
Sec. 2 of H. Res. 368 says, in its entirety: “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.” Clause 4 allows any House member to call for a clean vote. Resolution 59 provides for “continuing appropriations” for FY 2014 (there are six versions). The Republicans’ Majority Leader is Eric Cantor.
Translated, Sec. 2 means: Only Eric Cantor or someone he chooses has the power to call for a vote on a clean budget bill; the rest of the House members have been stripped of their traditional privilege in that respect. In other words, on October 1, whatever Republicans were saying about negotiating to keep the government from shutting down was bogus. What they were busy doing was passing legislation (228-199) that formally told Democrats they could pound sand.
It helps to make votes useless
Also around October 1, there was much public speculation by House members and journalists that the continuing budget resolution from the Senate would actually pass the House, with some 20 Republican votes for it, if only House Speaker John Boehner, the Ohio Republican, would bring the bill to the floor for a vote. Boehner refused to do that, maybe because he thought, or wanted to think, that he couldn’t do it, at least not without saying “please” to Eric Cantor.
And so, with a majority of both houses of Congress and the president all wanting to keep the government running, an apparent minority of the House shut the government down. And that was the plan all along.
At the House Rules Committee meeting less than two hours before the government shutdown began, Republicans first presented Democrats with their rule change to give Eric Cantor dictatorial authority in H. Res. 368. It took a few minutes for the committee’s ranking member, New York Democrat Louise Slaughter to recognize the con. (Even C-SPAN missed the point, captioning video of the committee meeting as “Rule to Appoint Conferees to Continuing Resolution,” a caption that was, as best, only the cover story.)
“Tonight we are once again considering a resolution designed to prevent a government shutdown,” said the committee chair, Republican Pete Sessions of Texas, in his opening statement, a statement demonstrably dishonest in that the resolution called for a conference committee with less than two hours before the shutdown was to begin.
More honestly, Sessions added: “The bottom line is House Republicans still desire to delay or defund or dismantle Obamacare, and we’re going to stick to this effort.”
At first Louise Slaughter expressed surprise that the resolution called for a conference committee, when Republicans had been refusing a conference committee for months. She noted that the government was undoubtedly about to shut down and no one knew how long a conference committee process would take.
“We just now saw this [H. Res. 368], as you know,” Slaughter said and Sessions acknowledged. Referring to the House Republicans’ style of one-party rule, Slaughter added, “To be really informed is something that would have been very helpful to us.”
The sandbagged sometimes get angry
After yielding back her time, and hearing Sessions refer to the conference process as “this rain dance that’s going to have to take place now,” Slaughter spoke up again, the penny having dropped, that Republicans were changing the rules in the middle of the game:
“It was just pointed out to me that under regular order of the House any member can call for a vote on the Senate proposal, but you’ve changed that regular order under the resolution that only the majority leader can do it. Can you tell us why you did that?”
Sessions explained his party’s duplicity with remarkably calm candor:
“What we’re attempting to do is to actually get our people together, rather than trying to make a decision, we’re trying to actually have a conference…. Under those rules that you know, that you were in reference to, there could be a motion as early as tonight, and Congress would be avoided…. We took it away and the reason why is we want to go to conference.”
“Oh, mercy,” said Slaughter. “It just gets deeper and deeper…. And in spite of the fact that every one of you said over and over, ad nauseum, you didn’t want to shut the government down…. I think it’s really shortsighted, I think it is an atrocity to the rules of the House, and I think that you’re putting this whole country through this angst and this aggravation that we did not need to go, this one we could have done without. And I must tell you that I’m more and more angry, now that I understand what you’ve done is take away our ability to really make a motion for that Senate vote.”
And there it ended for awhile.
Why wasn’t it worth a fuss then?
Slaughter did not take her anger to the media or the public. None of the other Democrats took their anger to the media or the public. Apparently no one paid significant attention to C-SPAN. The government went ahead and closed and life went on, just as if the authoritarian boot had not actually come down hard on the House rule that might have spared the country the shutdown.
And that’s the way America’s mediated reality remained until October 12 when House Democrat Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, in a patently artificial bit of political theatre, belatedly raised a complaint on the House floor. While he’s not part of the Democratic leadership in the House, Van Hollen is the ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee and has been touted by some as “the next Democratic Speaker of the House,” after Nancy Pelosi.
Staged almost two weeks after the Republicans’ draconian rule change, Van Hollen’s performance came complete with crude props including an oversize poster of House Rule XXII, Clause 4, large enough for easy reading on TV. Van Hollen’s ploy was to use the traditional rule to move that the House vote on the clean budget bill “and concur in the Senate amendment to open the government now.”As Van Hollen well knew, that motion could have been made any time since October 1, and would have been ruled out of order under the Republicans’ new rule allowing only Eric Cantor to make such a motion.
On October 12, the acting House Speaker, Republican Jason Chaffetz of Utah, predictably shut Van Hollen down, but not before he’d spoken long enough to create a five-minute YouTube video walking the viewer through the facts of the Republicans’ legislative coup. “Democracy has been suspended,” Van Hollen says at the end of the clip that had 2.2 million views in its first four days online.
Van Hollen posted his clip under the disingenuous title, “The GOP’s little rule change they hoped you wouldn’t notice.” Somehow, it’s not all that encouraging to learn that Democrats respond to a fascist pre-emption first by ignoring it, then by turning it into a sideshow, everyone rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.
On the other hand, as Mark Twain also said, “Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.”
William M. Boardman has over 40 years experience in theatre, radio, TV, print journalism, and non-fiction, including 20 years in the Vermont judiciary. He has received honors from Writers Guild of America, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Vermont Life magazine, and an Emmy Award nomination from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.
Reader Supported News is the publication of origin for this work.