Former House Parliamentarian on how both parties change the rules when in the majority at the expense of real debate.
JESSICA DESVARIEUX, CAPITOL HILL CORRESPONDENT, TRNN: The government shutdown may seem like yesterday’s news on Capitol Hill.
JOHN KING, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Sixty-eight percent say it would be a bad thing to shut the government down for a few days.
JONATHAN KARL, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, ABC NEWS: They now–George, the Republicans own this shutdown.
MEGYN KELLY, HOST, FOX NEWS: –in the blame game over the government shutdown with no end in sight.
DESVARIEUX: But despite all this media attention given to the shutdown, what’s seldom reported is a simple rule change that forced Congress to press pause.
But let’s hit rewind and find out how this all happened.
It was close to midnight on September 30. The 9-to-4 Republicans to Democrats House Rules Committee passed a resolution. Within it was a rules change to the standing procedural rule House Rule XXII, Clause 4. It reads:
“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.”
In plain English, that basically means that under normal procedure, any member could have called up the Senate budget bill for a vote. But during the government shutdown, they weren’t able to because of the rule change.
But with the rule change, the only member who had that privilege was majority leader Eric Cantor or his designee.
REP. LOUISE SLAUGHTER (D-NY): 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 this this resolution that only the majority leader can do it. Can you tell us why you did that?
REP. PETE SESSIONS (R-TX): In fact, that is correct. 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. And the gentlewoman knows that there are rules related to privileged motions that could take place almost effective immediately, and we’re trying to go to conference. So we think this was the quickest way to get that done.
SLAUGHTER: Well, I understand you are, but that doesn’t tell me why you changed the regular order so that [crosstalk] to do that under the rule.
SESSIONS: Well, in fact, you’re correct again. And the reason why is because we’re attempting to get the four groups of people together–Senate Republicans and Democrats, House Republicans and Democrats. And under those rules that you know that you were in reference to, there could be a motion as early tonight, and it could be–a conference would be avoided.
DESVARIEUX: This didn’t sit well with House Democrats. And in this video of Maryland Democratic representative Chris Van Hollen, we see him challenging the rule change. The video’s gone viral since then, with more than 3.4 million views.
REP. CHRIS VAN HOLLEN (D-MD): The Rules Committee, under the rules of the House, changed the standing rules of the House to take away the right of any member to move to vote to open the government and gave that write exclusively to the Republican leader. Is that right?
REP. JASON CHAFFETZ (R-UT): –House adopted that resolution. The chair – the chair – the chair is now prepared to entertain one minute.
VAN HOLLEN: I make my motion, Mr. Speaker. I renew my motion that under the regular standing rules of the House, Clause 4, Rule XXII, that the house take up the Senate amendments and open the government now.
CHAFFETZ: Under Section 2 of House Resolution 368, that motion may be offered only by the majority leader or his designate.
VAN HOLLEN: Mr. Speaker, why are the rules rigged to keep the government shut down?
CHAFFETZ: The gentleman will suspend. The gentleman will suspend.
VAN HOLLEN: Well, Mr. Speaker, I think–.
CHAFFETZ: The House–the chair will now entertain–
VAN HOLLEN: –democracy has been suspended, Mr. Speaker.
VAN HOLLEN: The gentlemen will suspend.
DESVARIEUX: The Real News spoke with Democratic congressman Alan Grayson of Florida, who also strongly opposed the shutdown.
REP. ALAN GRAYSON (D-FL): –because they knew that if anyone actually picked up one of these Senate bills that had been passed, they would have passed.
In the case of a speech that I gave on the floor, there is a longstanding rule that goes back literally decades, if not centuries, possibly all the way back to Thomas Jefferson’s time, where if one says that the dignity of the House has been impugned, then one can call for a vote on that issue. I pointed out that the dignity of the House had been impugned by the shutdown. I gave very specific information about that, including the cover of The Daily News, the fourth largest newspaper in the country, with a picture of John Boehner sitting in President Lincoln’s chair at the Lincoln Memorial with the caption “House of Turds”. And I called for a vote. And I meant that to be a test vote to see whether people wanted to have the shutdown continue or not. The Republicans violated the rules by preventing that vote.
DESVARIEUX: The simple rule change in the House had some very real consequences. After 16 days of being closed, the government lost $24 billion, according to Standard & Poor’s. This sounds like a very high price for Republicans to pay in political esteem, so we consulted an expert to get some background. We asked: was this kind of rule change unprecedented?
CHARLES JOHNSON, FMR. HOUSE PARLIAMENTARIAN: They say it wasn’t unprecedented. And it was a speaker’s staff, I guess, got word to the Rules Committee that they felt they needed that protection because of the uncertainties which later developed on that particular bill.
DESVARIEUX: That’s Charles Johnson. He was the House Parliamentarian for 40 years and now works as a consultant for the House. According to Johnson, the House rules committee did adopt the same rule change under the speakership of Newt Gingrich in 1995. This took place during the 104th Congress, which currently holds the record low for passing the fewest bills since 1947.
But in last half-century, Johnson said that Democrats have not changed that particular rule. But they have changed rules to be in their favor when they’re in the majority.
A memo sent by Republicans lists several incidences when Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi was speaker. They cite issues like the lockdown of debate on the House floor during the passage of the Affordable Care Act.
Johnson said that what’s at the heart of these rule changes is control.
JOHNSON: To prevent the uncertainty of other motions coming to the floor, number one, and also to guarantee some predictability in time on when these votes are going to take place and what they’re going to be on. The notion of unpredictable motions, which would otherwise be permitted under the standing rule, has given way in recent congresses to the desire by both party majorities for control.
DESVARIEUX: Congressman Grayson admitted that Democrats have made rule changes. But when Republicans get into power, he said that they make it even harder for the minorities to have a say.
GRAYSON: Before the shutdown began, they changed the 72 hour rule. And they were very whiny about this when the Democrats were in charge. And so when they got into power, they said this is the new rule. What they’ve interpreted it to mean is that if they introduce a bill at 11:59 on a Thursday, then we have to vote for it by 12:01 a.m. on a Saturday. I mean, they’ve gutted the ruled by making the 72 hour rule the one day plus two seconds rule and then completely suspended it during the whole debate over the shutdown.
JOHNSON: The notion of democracy of every citizen having an equal sense of participation, equal ability to participate through their representatives was impacted. But that happens all the time here in the House.
DESVARIEUX: A grim assessment for what is commonly known as the People’s House.
For The Real News Network, Jessica Desvarieux, Washington.
DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.