House Offers Sausage-Making Spectacle

July 21, 2003 ( - The House Ways and Means Committee passed the proposed Portman-Cardin bill on Friday, but it wasn't pretty - and it may not "take."

>It all started when Committee Democrats complained that they hadn’t had time to review a 91-page substitute bill (they got it shortly before midnight Thursday) – used a parliamentary procedure to require the reading of the bill (they were prevented from having a reading of the 200 page original bill as well).   Then, with the reading underway, all but Representative Pete Stark (D-California) adjourned to a nearby anteroom to craft their strategy.   Even co-sponsor and long-time champion of the measure Representative Ben Cardin (D-Maryland) said he didn’t know what was in the chairman’s substitute amendment.  

>Meanwhile, back in the main committee hearing, a motion was made to stop the reading of the bill – and with no Democrats in the chamber, a voice vote quickly passed the measure.   Stark, the lone remaining Democrat in the room, objected, but committee Chairman Bill Thomas (R-California) ruled that the objection was too late.

>What happened next – and the order/motivation for those actions – is still unclear.   But thanks to a resolution introduced by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-California) later that afternoon (and C-SPAN), we at least have plenty of on-the-record testimony from the nation’s lawmakers as to what they think transpired and why.

Library “Booking?’

>The Democrats claim that their conference in the library was interrupted by Thomas’ chief of staff – while the bill was still being read – with Capitol police in tow, who told the Democrats to leave the room.   According to Ranking Democrat Charles Rangel (D-New York), they refused to do so, and basically asked the police what they were going to do about it.

>The police decided that the prudent course would be to call in a supervisor.   According to Rangel, the Democrats repeated their refusal to leave the room, and their query as to what the lieutenant planned to do about it.   The lieutenant reportedly felt that it was a matter for the Sergeant-at-Arms, and summoned him.   The Sergeant-at-Arms apparently decided that the prudent thing to do would be to let the House members work it out for themselves.  

Representative John Lewis (D-Georgia) said, “I never thought, as a member of Congress, that I would be threatened with arrest in the library of the Ways and Means Committee. I thought that was a safe place to meet.”   “He’s threatened to have us arrested,” Representative Charles Rangel (D-New York) said of Thomas.

>The Democrats, having managed to make a stand (and profess concern at the threat of being "arrested" in front of the media), returned to the committee room.  

>The Republican version of this series of events is that the chief of staff was told to ask the Democrats to leave the library, which was to be used by GOP members, and relocate to a room down the hall.   Representative Jim McCrery (R-Louisiana), who was the GOP point man in opposition to Pelosi's bill, said, "What we have here in total is a very short period of time, minutes, during which the sergeant-at-arms and Capitol Police were told by someone to remove the Democrats from the library to another room."

"Shortly after the police arrived at the library, the chairman directed the staff to tell the sergeant-at-arms it was all right to use the library," according to McCrery.   

>Instead, Republicans claim that Capitol police were summoned by Thomas not to deal with the library "squatters" but to restore "order and decorum" to the chamber in the wake of a heated exchange between Stark and fellow Representative Scott McInnis (R-Colorado).

"Dare" Deviled?

>That exchange followed the aforementioned departure of the Democrats from the chamber.   According to transcripts of the session (read by members of both parties in the subsequent House debate on Peloisi's bill condemning the actions), Stark, who at 72, has earned a reputation for sharp, caustic comments, was making comments directed at Thomas during the reading of the amendment.   After a few of those, McInnis told Stark to "Shut-up."   At which point, Stark, according to a transcript of the session, told McInnis, 50, "You little wimp. Come on. Come over here and make me. I dare you."

>The transcript then recorded laughter, as Stark added, "You little fruitcake. I said you are a fruitcake."

>It was not clear in the debate (debacle?) that followed - but it may well have been that Stark's interchange with McInnis was occurring as the vote to table the reading took place - which led to Stark's objection to the cessation of the reading being too late.

>What was clear in the aftermath is that Democrats and Republicans have vastly differing views of what transpired, and, at least Friday, there appeared to be little middle ground in the versions of what transpired and why.  

>As Representative Nancy Johnson (R-Connecticut) said, "It wasn't a day in which the dialogue among us met the responsibility of governance."

>While House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Illinois) tried to smooth things over between the parties, Pelosi persisted with introducing the  resolution disapproving of the manner in which Thomas conducted the hearing, and declaring the pension bill not validly ordered reported to the House. After an hour of debate, the resolution was (surprise, surprise), tabled by a  party line vote of 170 to 143 .   Still, while Republicans had hoped to bring the bill to the floor of the full House this week, Friday's events have cast some doubts on that strategy.

>Cardin, in remarks made during the Pelosi resolution debate,   said it was "absolutely essential that the bill be returned to the Ways and Means Committee for full markup with opportunities for all members to participate." Thomas and Hastert are reportedly in favor of that move.

Who would have thought that pensions could be so controversial?