Never underestimate a working majority

  • Philip M. Hocker/Mineral Policy Center

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Four years ago, shortly after the Republicans took control of Congress, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, glorying in her new status as a member of the majority, rose on the Senate floor to propose an amendment to the Interior Appropriations bill.

She goofed.

Still a newcomer (she had won the 1992 special election to replace Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen), Hutchison sought to prevent the Interior Department from adding to the endangered species list. But that was policy-making, not appropriating, Democrats said, and was therefore in violation of Rule 16, designed to protect the appropriations process even in the freewheeling U.S. Senate.

Democrats said her amendment was "not germane," and the parliamentarian agreed. It was knocked out.

Whereupon the Republicans, armed, in George Washington Plunkitt's words, with "a working majority and no conscience to speak of," abruptly abolished Rule 16.

It was done so abruptly that many did not catch on.

"I thought they just overruled the parliamentarian for that occasion," said one Capitol Hill veteran, referring to a tactic resorted to from time to time by both Republicans and Democrats, who, it should be noted, displayed no more conscience when the working majority was theirs.

But no, the GOP majority had not voted to let this one amendment come to the floor. It had voted to let any member propose any amendment to any bill at any time.

An abrupt about-face

There were a few reasons for this sweeping change, but none dearer to Republican hearts than the subject of Hutchison's amendment: environmental and land-use policies.

These were the heady days when some Republicans, especially in the Rocky Mountain West, actually thought they were the vanguard of a revolution that was on the verge of remaking America, in part by unmaking limitations on the private exploitation of natural resources. The less-than-germane amendment - a "rider," in Capitol Hill parlance - to a hard-to-veto appropriations bill, seemed the best course for maneuvering this revolution around an uncooperative president.

Now, fast-forward four years. In the waning days of July, Senate Republicans, armed with a working majority and no conscience to speak of, up and restored Rule 16. They did this over the vociferous objections of the Democrats, the very same Democrats who argued for keeping the rule back in 1995.

Intellectual consistency has never been the Democrats' strong suit.

Has the GOP experienced some sort of conversion to tree-huggery, or at the very least, to more rational Senate procedures? Naaah. The Republicans are just afraid of Teddy Kennedy.

This may surprise those to whom the senior senator from Massachusetts is either the last old-line liberal, an aging libertine, or, most recently, the stoic patriarch of a star-crossed family. The first of those identifications is simplistic - Kennedy was the chief sponsor of the legislation deregulating the airlines - the second is outdated, and while the third is true enough, it helps obscure the fact that he is also one of the most capable and effective members of the Senate, now or ever.

He can get bills passed, often by working with Republicans. But he can also bedevil the Republicans by adroit use of the Senate rules, and that's just what he planned to do, using the very rule they had made, or un-made. Kennedy was going to propose either a minimum-wage increase or a strong "patient's bill of rights" for people in Health Maintenance Organizations, or both, to every bill that came to the floor.

No. His floor amendments wouldn't pass. But they would put Republicans in a pickle, forcing them to vote time after time against proposals that most people support. Not wanting to be in a pickle, the Republicans simply resurrected Rule 16. That's why the Democrats were so furious; they had been salivating at the prospect of all those Republican "no" votes.

Riders ride on

But some environmentalists, Democrats though most of them are, were pleased by the new rule, and just a few days after its adoption, their pleasure seemed justified.

Four proposed riders to this year's Interior Appropriations bill were ruled out of order, including one that would have given the governors of Idaho and Montana veto power over the introduction of grizzly bears into their states.

Well, don't cry for the Republicans yet. Don't celebrate any environmentalist triumph, either. Riders to appropriations bills aren't dead, merely a little more complicated.

That grizzly bear rider can be re-submitted in some form, as long as it is done through a committee. In this case, the Appropriations Committee's work on the bill is over, but the House-Senate Conference Committee is still to come.

Furthermore, sponsors of riders were reported to be working feverishly with lawyers in an effort to rewrite the proposals to render them germane. How grizzly bears and governors, and the relative powers thereof, become part of the appropriations process is difficult to discern, but remember the wisdom of the aforementioned Plunkitt, who, for the uninitiated, was the Democratic boss of New York City's Tammany Hall in its 19th century glory days).

Lest there be any doubts about the vitality of the rider, the same day Republicans had to drop their grizzly bear proposal, the Senate accepted another rider - this one had come through committee - to overturn the recent Interior Department ruling that limited a site for a mill's wastes to no more than five acres, as specified by the 1872 Mining Law (HCN, 5/24/99).

By a vote of 55-to-41, with nine Republicans voting against it and nine Democrats voting for it, the rider survived, pleasing the mining industry.

At first glance, one might suppose that this lack of Democratic solidarity could make it more difficult for the White House to stand firm on its threat to veto the entire appropriations bill if it includes the mining rider.

Glance again. Not only is the rider absent from the House of Representatives version of the bill, but a specific rejection of the rider is in the House bill, a sort of pro-environmental pre-emptive strike adopted by a vote of 273-to-151. And not only did 78 Republicans favor the measure supporting stricter waste dumping limitations, but one of them - Christopher Shays of Connecticut - was also one of its three main sponsors.

In other words, standing firm should be easy, even for an administration not renowned for same. Even if the Interior appropriation gets rolled into an omnibus appropriations bill for several other departments, the mining rider will have a hard time surviving the enmity of both the administration and the House.

The House-Senate conference is not likely to convene until after Congress returns from its August recess after Labor Day, so there will be plenty of time for both sides to huff and puff about this one.

But for the moment, the mining industry faces the real possibility of being forced to negotiate substantive changes in its favorite law.

Despite threats to take the new interpretation of the law to court, the industry has not done so, and one can only conclude that - protestations and letters to the editor notwithstanding - industry lawyers have judged its case to be a weak one.

Such is American democracy that sometimes having a working majority is not enough - with or without a conscience.

Jon Margolis is the author of The Last Innocent Year: America in 1964, the Beginning of the "Sixties."

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