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House Moves to Reduce Leaders' Power : Congress: Lawmakers force a vote on a rule that allows top Democrats to effectively shelve legislation and members to hide their true positions.

September 09, 1993|WILLIAM J. EATON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Rebellious lawmakers Wednesday took a major step toward changing a rule that makes it easier for House leaders to bottle up legislation and allows members to claim that they support measures they actually oppose.

The proposal would make a small change in an esoteric rule that says a majority of House members can bring legislation out of a committee by signing a "discharge petition." The change would require that the names of members signing such petitions be made public. Now the names are kept secret unless a majority signs the petition.

If approved, the change could give new life to initiatives such as congressional term limits and the presidential line-item veto that have been blocked by House leaders, who can send a bill to a hostile committee where it will die.

The change would subject representatives to a new level of public accountability. But it also could make the House more vulnerable to transitory public demands, tearing down a mechanism that cushions lawmakers from the pressure of passing public fancy or special interest groups, according to opponents of the change.

Forty-five Democrats joined with 173 Republicans to force a House vote Sept. 27 to overturn the parliamentary rule adopted in 1931, which is at the root of the debate.

Under existing rules, if a bill is sent to languish in a hostile committee, House members can bring it to the floor with a discharge petition signed by a majority. But, because of the secrecy requirement, the rule also permits lawmakers to proclaim support publicly for legislation while refusing to sign a "discharge petition" that would bring it to a vote.

Democratic leaders immediately moved to counter the proposed rules change. Rep. Joe Moakley (D-Mass.), chairman of the House Rules Committee, ordered hearings on discharge petitions with a view toward curbing their use.

Those who favor the existing rule, including Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.), insisted that making it easier to force House votes on measures without hearings and careful consideration threatens to destroy the committee system that is essential to orderly procedure.

Others supporting the rule said that it rightfully places a heavy burden on members who want to make an end-run around committees and force up-or-down votes on bills that may be popular with the public but are costly or even unconstitutional.

Rep. Vic Fazio (D-West Sacramento), vice chairman of the Democratic caucus, said that the change would allow lobbying organizations to put heavy pressure on Congress to support a bill before members know all of the facts about the legislation.

The insurgents were led by Rep. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.). Inhofe was aided by a surprisingly large number of Democratic freshmen in defiance of their leaders.

Inhofe credited former independent presidential candidate Ross Perot and his organization, United We Stand America, as well as conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh with intensive activity in the last six weeks to get the 218 signatures needed to force the issue to a floor vote.

Perot declared at a news conference: "This is a great day for our country . . . (but) every voting American needs to stay on red alert until this thing is finished."

Rep. Jane Harman (D-Marina del Rey), one of the last seven Democrats to sign the petition, putting it over the top, said that she "was elected to change the way Congress works. I think the start-up is going to be messy and we'll see a lot of things come out from under rocks. But there will be no rock left to hide behind and it will end the double-talk. People want straight talk."

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