Why Didn’t the House Amend the Fiscal Cliff Solution Bill?
Recently, Congress passed H.R. 8, the bill that averts at least the taxes part of the “fiscal cliff.” I can see reasonable arguments for both sides of the issue -- why conservatives should have voted “yea” or “nay” on the bill.
That said, however, I believe that conservatives could have gotten a better deal. Some of the evidence of that is that most members of the House who are often associated with the Tea Party voted “nay.” These included Michele Bachmann, Allen West, Louie Gohmert, Joe Wilson, Tim Scott, Trent Franks, Jeff Flake, Andy Harris, Roscoe Bartlett, and all Republicans from the states of Virginia, Utah, Tennessee, South Carolina, Mississippi, Kansas, Georgia, Arizona, and Alabama. (Here is a full list of the roll call votes in the House.)
Other evidence is that the House completely conceded to the Senate. That is, instead of acting like a co-equal chamber, it allowed an up-or-down vote on the Senate version of the bill. Instead, it could have added its own amendments. If it had done that, then almost surely the negotiations would have continued in a House-Senate conference committee.
Many may wonder: Why didn’t one of the Tea Party Republicans try to amend the bill? For instance, one provision of the bill states that, for almost everyone, tax rates shall return to the rates specified by the Bush tax cuts. One exception, however, is for non-married taxpayers who make more than $400,000 per year. Why didn’t someone, say Michele Bachmann, introduce an amendment, changing $400,000 to, say, $1,000,000 or $2,000,000? Even more perplexing, the bill contained extraneous provisions, such as one that allows Goldman Sachs to build new office space more cheaply. Another helps NASCAR to build racetracks more cheaply. Why not introduce an amendment to delete some of these provisions?
A partial explanation involves the “rule” under which the bill was considered in the House. Just before the House vote on H.R. 8, the Rules Committee passed a resolution, H. Res. 844, which stated:
Resolved, That upon the adoption of this resolution it shall be in order to take from the Speaker's table the bill (H.R. 8) to extend certain tax relief provisions enacted in 2001 and 2003, and to provide for expedited consideration of a bill providing for comprehensive tax reform, and for other purposes, with the Senate amendments thereto, and to consider in the House, without intervention of any point of order, a single motion offered by the chair of the Committee on Ways and Means or his designee that the House concur in the Senate amendments. The Senate amendments and the motion shall be considered as read. The motion shall be debatable for one hour equally divided and controlled by the chair and ranking minority member of the Committee on Ways and Means. The previous question shall be considered as ordered on the motion to its adoption without intervening motion or demand for division of the question.
The key sentence is the last, which states that “The previous question shall be considered as ordered.” This means that no more debate is allowed and no amendments can be considered.
One might ask: Why does the Rules Committee get such power? That is, why do its members get to declare that no one gets to amend H.R. 8?
The answer is that the Rules Committee doesn’t have such power. The Committee is only granted the power to propose measures such as H. Res. 844. For such a measure to become a genuine rule, the whole House must vote in favor of it.
In this case, the House indeed voted for H. Res 844. It passed overwhelmingly, 408-10. Indeed, all the members associated with the Tea Party whom I listed above voted “yea.” It’s a mystery to me why they didn’t vote nay.
It’s also a mystery why they didn’t try to amend H. Res. 844 in such a way to allow amendments to H.R. 8. E.g., if they wanted, they could have amended H. Res 844 so that it allowed, say, one amendment to H.R. 8—say, an amendment by Michele Bachmann that would “strike " $400,000’ in H.R. 8 and replace with ‘$1,000,000.’”
Their opportunity to do that comes at approximately the 38:20 mark of this video, where Rep. David Dreier says “With that I yield back the balance of my time and move the previous question.”
When he says “move the previous question,” he is requesting that H. Res. 844 come to an immediate vote—that the House allow no more debate on the motion, nor allow any amendments to H. Res. 844.
After Dreier says that, the Speaker Pro Tempore, Ben Quayle, says “Without objection, the previous question is ordered.” Quayle treats Dreier’s request as a “unanimous consent” request. This means that it can be defeated very simply: All that is required is for one member in the chamber to stand up and say “I object.”
Yet no one did. I'd love to hear an explanation from Tea Party House members why no one tried to amend the Senate version of the bill.