Roll Call: Is there consensus on the new House consensus calendar?

Jul 15, 2019
In The News

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While seen as encouraging bipartisanship, some worry about unintended consequences

Rep. Joe Wilson was the first member to take advantage of a new House rule designed to bring broadly supported bipartisan bills to the floor. The South Carolina Republican’s legislation to end the so-called widow’s tax received a vote Friday, but it was not the vote he envisioned.

Wilson’s bill, the Military Surviving Spouses Equity Act, would end a disparity between government payments made to surviving spouses of servicemembers who die on active duty. The “widow’s tax,” as the current complication in the law is known, requires the surviving spouses to forfeit much of their Department of Defense Survivor Benefit Plan annuity when they receive Dependency and Indemnity Compensation from the Department of Veterans Affairs by deducting from the former the value of the latter.

The measure was folded into the National Defense Authorization Act that the House passed Friday, 220-197. The Rules Committee put it in a manager’s amendment that was automatically folded into the bill once the House adopted the rule for debating the NDAA on Wednesday.

That rule also included language to remove Wilson’s bill from the consensus calendar queue. The calendar is a new procedural tool the House adopted this year to allow members who have bipartisan bills with at least 290 co-sponsors — two-thirds of the body — to bring their bills to the floor.

The rule works like this: Once a member gathers the requisite number of co-sponsors, he or she can file a motion to put it on the consensus calendar. Another 25 legislative days must pass before the bill is officially added to the calendar, but things are designed to move quickly after that. The House is required to consider a bill from the calendar each week as long as there are bills on it.

So far, no bills have made it on the calendar. Wilson filed his motion on May 16 and his bill, which has 365 co-sponsors, was scheduled to be placed on the calendar July 12. That would have prompted a floor vote that same day since it was the last day of the week.

The Rules Committee did not give Wilson a heads-up they were going to put language in the NDAA rule to remove his bill from the consensus calendar queue.

Although his measure still received advanced out of the House as part of the NDAA, Wilson was not happy about the maneuver. He and all other Republicans opposed the defense policy bill because they felt Democrats loaded it up with partisan provisions.

“It’s a political gimmick. … It’s a way to kill the bill, not to promote it,” Wilson told CQ Roll Call. “This is politics at its worst.”

Democrats’ decision not to consult him before removing his bill from consideration for a stand-alone vote through the consensus calendar confirmed to Wilson that “this was not done with good intent.”

House Rules Chairman Jim McGovern, speaking with a CQ Roll Call reporter before she learned that Wilson had not been informed about the move, said folding Wilson’s bill into the NDAA was “compliant” with the intent of the consensus calendar process because it brought the measure to the floor.

“We don’t need two votes on it. We need one,” the Massachusetts Democrat said. “The advantage of doing it the way we’re doing it is the [NDAA] is must-pass bill. If we pass this under suspension and we send it over to Mitch McConnell’s graveyard, this will never see the light of day,” McGovern added, referring to the GOP-led Senate and its leader.

Wilson said he expects to serve on a House-Senate conference committee to resolve differences between the chambers’ two versions of the NDAA and will fight for the widow’s tax repeal to be part of the final product, but he’s not optimistic it will survive the negotiations.

“Very likely it’ll be knocked out, then I’ll try to bring it back up” through the consensus calendar, he said.

Bills in calendar queue

Following Wilson, four Democrats have also moved to get their bills on the consensus calendar.

Three of the measures are still in the 25-day waiting period. The fourth, California Rep. Zoe Lofgren’s Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act, passed the House on Wednesday, 365-65.

That bill, which had 311 co-sponsors, would eliminate the per-country limit on employment-based visas and increase the per-country limit on family-based visas.

Lofgren said she doesn’t think her June 18 motion to put the bill on the consensus calendar is what led to its floor vote last week.

“I just wanted to cover all my bases,” she said. “I don’t think it was ever grudging on the part of the leadership to go to the floor.”

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer told CQ Roll Call on Thursday that Democratic leaders were still discussing how to handle the other bills that could soon be placed on the consensus calendar.

“This is a new process, and we really have to get comfortable with how it’s being done because it’s very easy to get 290 on some great thing, but they haven’t been vetted,” he said. “So I want to talk to the committee chairmen and see what they think.”

One method for removing bills from consensus calendar consideration is to have the committee of jurisdiction mark them up. That would take care of the vetting concern Hoyer referenced.

However, two of the other bills in the calendar queue are noncontroversial enough that leadership will likely be able to dispense with them in the same way they handled Lofgren’s measure — by bringing them to the floor under suspension of the rules, the fast-track process requiring a two-thirds vote for passage, before the 25-day waiting period expires.

“If we can deal with these issues before the time runs out, we ought to do it,” McGovern said.

Leadership has plenty of time on California Rep. John Garamendi’s bill to award a Congressional Gold Medal to U.S. merchant mariners of World War II. He filed his motion to put the measure, which has 295 co-sponsors, on the consensus calendar June 25. With the House scheduled to be on recess late July through early September, his bill won’t officially be added to the calendar until mid-to-late September.

Oregon Rep. Kurt Schrader’s bill to expand regulations designed to combat horse soring — using chemicals, pressure or devices to cause pain to horses’ front feet so they pick them up higher and faster than they naturally would — is scheduled to be put on the calendar within the next week since he filed his motion on May 23. The measure has 307 co-sponsors.

“It’s supposed to go forward on the calendar, as I understand it,” Schrader said Thursday when asked if leadership may try to move it forward before the 25-day waiting period expires.

Even if Schrader’s bill moves forward that way, leadership seems to want to avoid letting the consensus calendar drive the schedule and circumvent other rules and procedures in the process.

“The intent was so you couldn’t just bottle up something. We get that,” Hoyer said. “We’re discussing whether or not there needs to be some other provisions in there to make sure that it doesn’t go beyond what the reformers intended to do and put it in a sort of automatic pilot.”

PAYGO concerns

There is some concern surrounding the other bill pending in the consensus calendar queue about going beyond the intent of the new rule. The process was designed by members of the Problem Solvers Caucus to ensure leadership didn’t ignore bills with broad bipartisan support.

But one thing the centrist members didn’t envision is that members might use the process to get around other House rules, like a pay-as-you-go, or PAYGO, rule that requires legislation with a cost be offset with spending cuts or revenue increases.

Connecticut Rep. Joe Courtney filed a motion May 21 to put his bill to repeal the so-called Cadillac tax on the consensus calendar. Leaders confirmed Friday his measure would be considered under suspension of the rules this Wednesday.  

“I’m completely copacetic with bringing it up it on the suspension calendar,” Courtney said last week, before leadership announced its decision. “My sense is no one wants to make the consensus calendar a frequent flyer around here, so finding ways to dispose of it off that calendar … the sense I get is that that’s the preference.”

Courtney’s bill has 358 co-sponsors and is widely popular, but it comes with a $190 billion price tag.

Some fiscally conservative Democrats in the Blue Dog Coalition, many of whom are also members of the Problem Solvers Caucus, have warned leadership against allowing the consensus calendar to be used to waive PAYGO.

“It’s incredibly important that we don’t allow the consensus calendar to be an end-run around the House rules,” Blue Dog Coalition Co-chair Stephanie Murphy said, noting her group sent leadership a letter making that point.

The Florida Democrat said she hopes the cost of Courtney’s bill will be offset before it is brought to the floor, but she declined to say whether she’d oppose it if it were unpaid for. It doesn’t look like Murphy will get her way though, because leadership bringing up the measure under suspension of the rules will waive PAYGO.

Murphy is one of the Problem Solvers members who leveraged their votes in the speaker election to get Nancy Pelosi to agree to the consensus calendar and other rule changes.

Only one of the members to use the consensus calendar process so far, Schrader, is in the Problem Solvers Caucus.

“It was never meant for the purpose of any individual on Problem Solvers,” Murphy said. “It was meant to improve the way that this institution operates. Power is consolidated so tightly with leadership. I experienced it when it was a Republican-led majority, where even bills that have broad support could be squished for political reasons. And so it was intended for everybody to benefit from having a process by which you could get bills with broad bipartisan support to be considered in this Congress.”

Problem Solvers Co-chair Josh Gottheimer said he’s pleased members have begun utilizing the consensus calendar process.

“It’s taking time for people to realize that this is a resource available for them to get bipartisan legislation on to the floor,” the New Jersey Democrat said. “And now, more and more people are approaching us, the Problem Solvers, and saying, ‘Can we work together to get to 290?’ And that’s exactly what you want. You get bipartisan legislation, get it considered. Exact objective.”

Gottheimer doesn’t mind if leadership brings the consensus bills to the floor before they actually get placed on the calendar.

“If this is a pressure point to force it to the floor for debate and a vote so you can be heard — I don’t care how it gets there as long as it gets there,” he said.

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