The Extraordinary Way that the House Passed the Payroll Tax Extension
In my undergrad Congress course, I occasionally ask the following question on midterms: “True or False: The House can pass a bill by unanimous consent.”
The answer is true, and about five hours ago, the House did just that. Specifically, John Boehner and other House Republicans made an agreement with the Senate and White House, and they codified the agreement into a bill, H.R. 3765.
As you can see in this C-SPAN video, when Boehner entered the House this morning, he first allowed the House to perform some perfunctory duties, like the morning prayer and pledge of allegiance. Next, he recognized Joanne Emerson, a Republican from Missouri.
“I ask unanimous consent,” said Emerson, “that the committees of referral be discharged from further consideration of H.R. 3765 and ask for its immediate consideration in the House.”
Note that she used the word “consideration,” which means that the House members can immediately debate the bill, and after debate, have a roll call vote on the bill. Instead, as I’ll discuss in a moment, Boehner treated her request as if she said “passage” instead of “consideration.”
At this point, Boehner is supposed wait a moment to see if anyone says, “I object,” and if no one does, he is supposed to say “Without objection, it is so ordered.”
Instead, Steny Hoyer, a member of the Democratic leadership, asks to be recognized—i.e. to be allowed to speak. Boehner indeed recognizes him, and Hoyer makes a short speech. According to the rules, Hoyer was not really supposed to be allowed to make a speech. Instead, Boehner is supposed to settle the unanimous consent request. But the speech was short, and I suspect that Boehner didn’t really mind.
After Hoyer speaks, Boehner says, “Without objection, the bill is engrossed, read for a third time and passed, and the motion to reconsider is laid upon the table.”
Note that Emerson, in her request, asked nothing about engrossing the bill, reading it for a third time, or passing the bill. Instead, as is common in legislative bodies, the speaker pretends that the unanimous consent request contained such requests. As long as no one says “I object,” all those things are considered as passed.
That is, the House treats the bill as if: 1) It has been read for a third time. (House rules require that at least the title of the bill be read three times.) 2) It has been engrossed (rewritten to include all amendments that have been passed and made official by the House clerk). And 3) passed the House.
In addition, Boehner added some language that would disallow the bill to be “reconsidered.” Specifically, the House rules allow any roll call vote to be “reconsidered.” That is, any member can ask that the House re-vote on any measure. However, according to the rules, reconsideration can only be done one time. Consequently, what often happens is that, after a bill is passed, the proponents immediately ask for reconsideration, just so it cannot be reconsidered later. They then ask that their own request—for the motion to be reconsidered—be “tabled. “ That is, they ask for their request to be immediately defeated.
When Boehner said “and the motion to reconsider is laid upon the table,” he is pretending that the House has gone through the two-step process to (i) reconsider the bill, and (ii) table the reconsideration.
What he did in that one sentence is a little complicated. But it is very routine for bills in the House. And at any rate, despite the pretensions and complications in the unanimous consent request, any member in the House could have said “I object” to defeat any of the motions.
Interestingly, if you watch the video carefully, Boehner looks up after he finishes the sentence. His look seems a little sheepish to me—as if he’s not sure whether someone will object.
But no one did, and thus the bill passed the House. Soon, assuming President Obama signs it, the bill will become law.