There has been much comment about the take-no-prisoners approach of the Congressional Republican leadership in cramming through the Medicare prescription-drug benefit this past November 22. Procedural rules were ignored. House Democrats were barred from conference committees. And since the Republicans didn’t have enough votes of their own as the session opened, the usual fifteen-minute rule in the House for roll-call votes was simply put aside. The roll call went on for almost three hours, until enough reluctant Republicans had been threatened and browbeaten into changing their votes to allow the bill to squeak through. Democrat Barney Frank of Massachusetts said it might be “the end of parliamentary democracy as we have known it.”
But it was not the worst case. A far more chilling episode, little remarked and with even graver portent for the future of the democratic process, occurred on November 12. A small group of leading Republicans ordered stripped from this year’s Treasury-Transportation appropriations bill an amendment (already approved) that prohibited the use of Treasury funds to enforce controls on travel to Cuba. They did this behind closed doors and before the conferees had even met to consider the disposition of the amendment. As Democratic Senator Max Baucus, one of the amendment’s sponsors, pointed out in a subsequent statement, “It wasn’t the conferees [who removed it]. Thirteen of the sixteen Senate conferees were supportive…. [They] would not have stripped out the amendment.” Who then? According to Republican Senator Michael Enzi of Wyoming, another amendment sponsor, “It was stripped out by committee staffers even before members of the committee formally met. There was no vote taken. Poof, it just disappeared into the Congressional ether.”
But how could that happen? The measure had been approved on the floor of the House in September by a bipartisan vote of 227 to 188 and in the Senate in October by a 59-to-36 vote, with a number of key Republicans voting in favor. Clearly it was the will of the majority in Congress, reflecting the will of the American people. The language in the House and Senate versions was identical, so there was nothing for the conferees to reconcile. By Congressional rules, it should have moved forward to the President’s desk with the rest of the bill, for him to sign or veto.
Why did it not do so? Because the President had put out the word that he would veto any measure that weakened controls on travel to Cuba. Under procedural rules, he could not simply veto the Cuba travel amendment; he’d have to veto the entire appropriations bill, a far more serious matter. Although funding for Treasury and Transportation might have been kept flowing with a continuing resolution, that was by no means certain. Hence, blocking the travel amendment risked at least temporary paralysis of these key agencies, to the distinct embarrassment of the President.
And yet, the dilemma could have come as no surprise, for the President knew all along that the amendment would be attached to the Treasury-Transportation appropriations bill, where it had appeared three years in a row. Would he really have used the veto? We’ll never know. In order that his bluff not be called and that he not be forced to put his money where his mouth had taken him, he had his minions in Congress remove the amendment. According to one senior Republican staffer quoted by the New York Times, they were “not going to put a bill on the floor that potentially embarrasses the President.”
Thus was the democratic process desecrated. Indeed, if this is the way President Bush intends to play the game, then our whole democratic system is in danger.