Tuesday 6 January 2009

Motions to Recommit

Rules changes in the House of Representatives are likely to be hotly contested today. One of the most controversial is in the bill H.Res. 5 Section 2 (g) - Instructions in the Motion to Recommit.

There are three variants of the motion to recommit.

The first is a "straight" motion which would have the effect of sending the bill back to committee. Currently such a motion is not debated, but a vote is taken.

The second is a recommital motion which has instructions to the committee, which is to be considered "forthwith". The practice is that, if the motion is passed, the Committee chair must report the bill back to the House immediately, without the bill leaving the Chamber, but including any amendment given by the instructions.

The third type has instructions, but no requirement to report back "forthwith". The motion may include the term 'promptly', but this has no effect.

Where instructions are given, the motion to recommit can be debated for up to 10 minutes.

These motions are procedural devices which give opponents of a measure another chance to attack the bill. Cleverly used, they can be used by the minority party to create an embarrassing dilemma for majority members who favour a specific amendment, but back the bill generally. A motion to recommit without 'forthwith' instructions forces the majority member either to vote for - which could have the practical effect of killing the bill (As John Boehner said in 2003 - "For those of you who are not familiar with the nuance, that means the bill is dead forever") or voting against - which puts into the public record that the member has voted against a policy he (or his constituents) strongly support. At election time this allows an opponent to run ads suggesting the member opposes something, when in fact they didn't want to kill the whole bill.

In the last Congress the use of recommittal motions skyrocked. in the 106th Congress they were used on only 27% of occasions - and the average from 1989-2008 is 46%. In the 110th Congress they were used 78% of the time. 'Non forthwith' variants were used on 47 occasions - (there have only been 121 uses in the 10 Congresses after 1989!

The proposed change would disallow 'Non forthwith' motions which included instructions to the committee. The minority could still put down straight recommital motions (which could kill the bill, but does not limit the committees freedom of action) or 'forthwith' instructions. Debate would be allowed for all motions. (Currently straight motions are not debatable).

There is an excellent CRS paper at http://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/RL34757.pdf by Megan S Lynch. Details of the rule changes proposed are available at http://www.rules.house.gov/bills_details.aspx?NewsID=4116