GOP Turning To Old Rule To Air Views

Originally published in CQ’s Congressional Monitor
By K. Daniel Glover

Often frustrated by rules stacked against the minority, resourceful House Republicans have adopted a new strategy to promote their views on the floor.

At a pace more frequent than in recent years, Republicans have used a rule that allows the House to give marching orders to its representatives in conference committee negotiations with the Senate.

So far this year, House lawmakers have offered no fewer than 22 “motions to instruct conferees” on issues ranging from school prayer to federal spending. That’s far more than the 11 motions offered in all of 1993 and 12 in 1992. All but one of this year’s motions have been offered by GOP members.

If approved by the House, the instructions do not bind conferees to vote any particular way, and they routinely disregard the instructions. But Republicans nonetheless find the exercise useful.

“It’s one way we can see to it that the issues we care about get addressed,” Pennsylvania Republican Bob Walker said.

Crime bill targeted
The strategy was most visible in June and July when Bill McCollum, R-Fla., and a handful of his GOP colleagues offered a series of motions to instruct House negotiators in conference on the anti-crime bill (HR 3355).

Under House rules, only one motion to instruct conferees can be offered initially on any given bill, and that right is reserved for the minority. But if conferees do not reach an agreement within 20 calendar days, House lawmakers can then offer unlimited motions on the House floor.

That’s what happened with the crime bill, and McCollum said Republicans took advantage of the opportunity to highlight their objections to the competing versions of the measure.

In the days leading up to the July 28 deal on the crime bill, Republicans offered at least nine motions to instruct House conferees on, among other things, provisions regarding “racial justice,” prison construction and the death penalty.

McCollum said it was a worthwhile effort because conferees abided by the wishes of the House on key issues such as racial justice. The House initially voted in April to keep in its bill language that would let inmates on death row use statistical evidence to help prove racial bias in death penalty cases.

But when McCollum raised the issue again June 16 as a motion to instruct conferees, the House reversed its decision, voting overwhelmingly to drop the racial justice language. House and Senate conferees eventually agreed to do just that.

The vote, McCollum said, “sort of tipped the scales for everyone to see that the public is opposed to this provision.”

Conferees did not respond favorably to all of the nonbinding instructions, however, and that angered Pennsylvania Republican George Gekas. He convinced the House to tell its conferees to support language on procedures for imposing the death penalty, but the language was dropped by negotiators.

When the Rules Committee met last week to consider the conference report, Gekas wondered aloud what good it does for lawmakers to offer motions to instruct if conferees can disregard the House at will.

Still, McCollum said the tactic can be an effective tool. “When we have overwhelming votes and sentiment,” he said, “it’s hard for members of a conference to ignore that if they eventually want to get a bill passed.”