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Ernest Istook

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Congress Needs to Fix Itself in 2012

Posted: 01/11/12 04:23 PM ET

Congress owes America a 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, Dec. 23, 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 p.m. that Thursday of a key vote at 10 a.m. on 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 10 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 Dec. 14, 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.

Ernest Istook, now a Distinguished Fellow at The Heritage Foundation, served 14 years in the U.S. Congress. First appeared at The Foundry.

 

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