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How the GOP messes up the House

March 19, 2006|Erica Rosenberg | ERICA ROSENBERG, director of the program on public policy at Arizona State University, was on the Democratic staff of the House Resources Committee from 1999 to 2004.

WHEN THE House passed the California Desert Protection Act in 1994, it was the culmination of seven years of study, numerous public hearings and more than two months of debate on the House floor. Both Democrats and Republicans offered dozens of amendments.

By contrast, when Rep. Richard Pombo (R-Tracy), chairman of the House Resources Committee, rewrote the Endangered Species Act in 2004, it took just a matter of days. He introduced the Threatened and Endangered Species Recovery Act on Sept. 19, 2005, held a single hearing two days later and marked up the legislation in his committee the next day. The bill came to the House floor a week later and passed after 90 minutes of "debate" during which only one Democratic amendment was allowed for consideration.

The fate of the Endangered Species Act under Pombo's leadership typifies House Republicans' demolition approach to the nation's legislative process. Measures affecting long-standing energy policy, mining law and oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge were similarly railroaded through committee with little opportunity for debate, amendment or media coverage. Often, the public record on what occurred during these bills' travels through committee was thin, at best.

To understand just how House Republicans are eroding the legislative process, one must first understand how the chamber's committee system is supposed to work.

The textbook diagram begins with a representative dropping his or her bill into the "hopper" on the House floor and its referral to an appropriate committee. Public hearings follow. Then the bill is "marked up" -- an opportunity to amend the legislation in light of information gathered at the hearings -- and voted on at the subcommittee and full committee levels. All this activity is recorded in a committee report.

Once a bill reaches the floor, the amount of debate and number of amendments that can be debated is governed by a rule. In general, when a bill is controversial, the rule allows more amendments and more time for debate.

House Republicans have manipulated and truncated this process to rush their bills to a vote. As a result, the committee process no longer ensures that legislation is properly vetted. Hearings -- when held -- are mere formalities rather than opportunities for the public, experts and government agencies to provide information that might improve a bill. If a bill even gets a hearing (sometimes legislation goes straight to mark-up), Republican leaders often limit opponents' time to prepare their arguments to change it. In June 2002, for instance, the Resources Committee announced a hearing on five bills a week in advance, even though the text of three of the bills was unavailable to Democrats, the public and the administration.

Not that fact-finding or seeking opinions (particularly divergent ones) is a priority in the Republican-controlled House. Most of Pombo's committee hearings, for instance, are stacked to give majority witnesses a 3-1 advantage over minority ones.

Even the Bush administration's role in the committee process is diminishing. Administration views should be -- and used to be -- routinely sought. After all, who better than executive branch specialists to assess the merits and effects of a bill? Yet compressed committee timetables in the House often preclude administration input. The administration's views, like the public's, are apparently expendable to shield the Republican agenda from debate.

To further keep the public in the dark and expedite the passage of controversial legislation, House Republicans employ another technique: They mark up drafts of bills without holding any public hearings. This means no record of committee action, no legislative history, no opportunity for filing dissenting views, no Congressional Budget Office analysis of a bill's effect on spending, no recorded votes -- all those things we normally associate with an open and accountable democratic process.

In 2003, the 50-page Healthy Forests Restoration Act, which mandated sweeping changes in the nation's forest policies, was a draft bill marked up by Pombo's committee. As Rep. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) complained at the mark-up session, "What concerns me ... is the way this legislation is being brought before this committee. The committee print of this bill was received in my office during a recess period, on a Friday afternoon before it was scheduled to be marked up in committee a mere five days later. [And] ... this committee did not even hold any hearings on the bill before proceeding straight to mark-up."

The legislative route the Healthy Forests Restoration Act took was no aberration. The eviscerated committee process in the GOP-controlled House is designed to get such radical legislation to the floor for a vote. To help ensure passage of controversial bills, the powerful House Rules Committee, contrary to traditional practices, routinely restricts floor debate and limits opportunities for Democratic-sponsored amendments. In the process, democracy is being dismantled.

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