Wednesday, November 26, 2003

Parliamentary Calvinball

In 1995, soon after the Republicans gained the majority, Speaker Newt Gingrich declared his intention to make sure that votes would consistently be held in the 15-minute time frame. The "regular practice of the House," he said would be "a policy of closing electronic votes as soon as possible after the guaranteed period of 15 minutes." The policy was reiterated by Speaker Dennis J. Hastert when he assumed the post.

But faced with a series of tough votes and close margins, Republicans have ignored their own standards and adopted a practice that has in fact become frequent during the Bush presidency, of stretching out the vote when they were losing until they could twist enough arms to prevail. On at least a dozen occasions, they have gone well over the 15 minutes, sometimes up to an hour.

The Medicare prescription drug vote -- three hours instead of 15 minutes, hours after a clear majority of the House had signaled its will -- was the ugliest and most outrageous breach of standards in the modern history of the House. It was made dramatically worse when the speaker violated the longstanding tradition of the House floor's being off limits to lobbying by outsiders (other than former members) by allowing Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson on the floor during the vote to twist arms -- another shameful first...

Democracy is a fragile web of laws, rules and norms. The norms are just as important to the legitimacy of the system as the rules. Blatant violations of them on a regular basis corrode the system. The ugliness of this one will linger.




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