• The Heritage Network
    • Resize:
    • A
    • A
    • A
  • Donate
  • Congress Needs to Fix Itself in 2012

    Congress owes America better start for 2012, and not to repeat the way it ended 2011.

    Even if the Senate is hopelessly dysfunctional, the House could do better.  The final House session of 2011 was a prime example of how to lose public confidence.  The body was gaveled into session on short notice Friday morning, December 23rd, and a mere ten members approved legislation for the entire 435-member House.  The others had left for the holidays, so instead of a roll call vote on a controversial two-month lowering of the “payroll tax,” the bill passed by “unanimous consent” of the handful who were there.

    House leaders had given Members insufficient time to return to Washington.  Representatives who had scattered for the holidays were informed at 5 pm that Thursday of a key vote at 10 am Friday.  This unusual procedure for a major vote was possible only because the House a few days before had voted for a “martial law” procedure that removed the normal requirement for greater advance notice.

    That is why only ten House Members were present for the vote according to the Washington Times—four Republicans and six Democrats.

    The rush was purely political.  Had Members been told to return for a vote after Christmas, no deadline would have been missed and the public would have the accountability of a regular roll call vote.  Many Republicans had publicly opposed the two-month extension, but we will never know how they would have voted.

    Media reported that House Speaker John Boehner informed his Republican colleagues at 5 p.m. Thursday of what would occur Friday morning.  The notice came during a conference call that allowed them only to listen to the Speaker, not to respond, and they were informed that it was the “Speaker’s decision,” not theirs. It was the opposite from a call five days earlier, when Members sounded off at length to Boehner and pushed him to oppose the Senate’s and President Obama’s positions on the bill.

    Some were angered that their own GOP leaders out-maneuvered them with a quick count. FOX News reported that unnamed Republicans were incensed and believe the action could put Boehner’s speakership at risk in 2012.

    However, Speaker Boehner was only exercising special authority that almost every GOP Member had approved in advance.  A so-called “martial law” protocol was adopted by the House on December 14th, empowering the Speaker to schedule quick action by simply giving notice on the prior calendar day. As The Heritage Foundation has documented previously, the Speaker of the House only possesses whatever powers the other Representatives choose to give to him,

    Using the “martial law” provision, Boehner gaveled the House into session at 10 a.m. Friday after giving the notice at 5 p.m. Thursday, and was not bound by the usual three-day delay before acting on new legislation.  The House clerk’s official website shows the legislation, HR 3765, was introduced and passed by voice, all within 5 minutes and 15 seconds. The Senate and Obama also quickly approved HR 3765, extending by two months a lowering of the Social Security tax also known as the “payroll tax.”  That sets the stage for a continuing fight in 2012 over a longer extension.

    The vote ended, for now, a stormy political battle that featured President Obama daily pounding Republicans in the media, a rift between House and Senate Republicans, and internal differences among the House GOP.  Many Republicans wanted to link the tax holiday to reductions in the federal workforce plus several reforms.  The quick vote dropped that effort.

    Any lone Congressman wanting to continue the fight could have stymied Boehner’s decision if they could rush to Washington to be on the House floor that Friday morning to object to the unanimous consent procedure, or to challenge the absence of a quorum.  None did so.

    Rep. Tim Huelskamp, a Kansas Republican, told CNN he had considered objecting but the Speaker’s quick action made it impossible to return to Washington in time. “By the time we were notified that the unanimous consent agreement would be offered, where I come from in Kansas, I can’t get to Washington quick enough on this short notice,” he said.

    The House has serious challenges of dealing with a do-nothing Senate that protects President Obama’s aggressive liberal agenda.  Even if House Republicans were totally united, their task would be herculean.  But short-cutting the regular order of the legislative process became too common in 2011.  It undercuts public trust when promises of open and transparent government are not kept.

    By design, the House should have power flowing from the bottom-up, not be controlled from the top down.  Both leaders and rank-and-file should seek a fresh start as 2012 dawns, by avoiding the unseemly process that we witnessed as they ended 2011.

    Posted in Featured, Ongoing Priorities [slideshow_deploy]

    2 Responses to Congress Needs to Fix Itself in 2012

    1. Mike, Wichita Falls says:

      Outrageous! I heard it was a unanimous voice vote, but I didn't hear it was only 10 members!?! Good cover, Speaker, for your caucus. Call me cynical, but it sure looks that way.

      I can see how House members would have been justifiably angry at the use of the martial law provision had they adopted it at the beginning of the session in January 2011. However, I feel little sympathy for them if it was used on them only weeks after they adopted it. It seems to fly in the face of their promise to be open and transparent going into the mid-term election.

      Although they gave this power to their Speaker, I still believe the next Congress needs a new one that is if Boehner survives the primary. Now that Bachmann is out of the Presidential race, she needs to fight to be Speaker. We'll need a tough, principled one especially if Obama is re-elected and even perhaps if we get Romney or some other moderate.

    2. Blair Franconia, NH says:

      Congress needs a balance between moderate and conservative Republicans and moderate and liberal Democrats.

    Comments are subject to approval and moderation. We remind everyone that The Heritage Foundation promotes a civil society where ideas and debate flourish. Please be respectful of each other and the subjects of any criticism. While we may not always agree on policy, we should all agree that being appropriately informed is everyone's intention visiting this site. Profanity, lewdness, personal attacks, and other forms of incivility will not be tolerated. Please keep your thoughts brief and avoid ALL CAPS. While we respect your first amendment rights, we are obligated to our readers to maintain these standards. Thanks for joining the conversation.

    Big Government Is NOT the Answer

    Your tax dollars are being spent on programs that we really don't need.

    I Agree I Disagree ×

    Get Heritage In Your Inbox — FREE!

    Heritage Foundation e-mails keep you updated on the ongoing policy battles in Washington and around the country.