A look at leadership roles, rules and committee structures on Capitol Hill
WASHINGTON - The Constitution establishes the broad character of Congress, balanced between the deliberative Senate and the more responsive House of Representatives. Each chamber develops its own rules for proceeding with legislation. Each political party selects its own leaders. These leaders, in concert with the party that elected them, develop strategies for enacting law and winning elections. The White House, the secretariat of federal agencies and the interested parties of the public all weigh in on legislative strategy, but the majority and minority leaders in each party are the leading spokesmen and strategists for the party. The majority and minority ''whips'' are charged with getting out the vote on the floor of each chamber and keeping congressional members abreast of their party's legislative agenda.
Legislative process is supposed to proceed by what is called ''regular order,'' but the strategic decisions of party leadership also affect the process. In recent years, for instance, Republican leaders in the House decided to dispense with seniority in selecting committee chairmen; for strategic reasons pertaining to the desire to empower a ''permanent majority'' of Republican lawmakers, they would now be selected on the basis of party loyalty and fund-raising prowess. Committee chairmanships are coveted posts on Capitol Hill, for committee chairmen, often in concert with party leadership, decide which bills will advance in committee and which will not, what they'll look like once amended and whether they'll be amended. A great deal of strategic thinking has gone into committee structure before regular order is ever consulted.
Under regular order, a bill is introduced by a member of Congress; proceeds (provided the blessings of the majority party committee chairman) to hearings before a committee of jurisdiction or, depending on subject matter, before two or more committees; gets the benefit of witness testimony; undergoes committee revision; dies in committee or gets reported out by a majority vote; and goes onto the so-called ''calendar'' of the House or Senate, awaiting further action. From there it may get to floor action, including debate and different procedural votes prior to an ''up or down'' one; it may proceed, as many Indian-specific legislative items do, according to ''unanimous consent'' agreement, the rules of which vary in each chamber; or it may die on the calendar.
In any case, the strategic thinking of the party and its leadership becomes predominant once a bill is out of committee. From that point on, committee chairmen and bill sponsors, though they often continue to play a role in the bill's disposition, yield power over it to the party leadership. The majority and minority leaders in each chamber, and in the House the powerful Speaker of the House, make decisions about the strategic timing of debate on a bill, as well as the rules under which a bill will be debated, or whether it will advance at all.
But it's crucial to note that strategic thinking goes on not only once a bill is out of committee, but throughout the ''regular order'' process, when a bill is still in committee. A good example occurred at a House Financial Services committee hearing on Feb. 13. Some Capitol Hill veterans believe Republicans foreshadowed a larger strategy on Native-specific issues by trying to amend a bill they had passed last year, when Republicans were in the majority and had the final say over which bills advanced in committee. A bill to reauthorize a housing program for Native Hawaiians was non-controversial then. But in dramatic Republican electoral losses last November, conservative members of the House GOP found a mandate for a more conservative agenda, reasoning that the party's biggest losses came among moderate Republicans.
When the Native Hawaiian housing bill came up again in the new Congress, members of the strongly conservative Republican Study Committee tried to attach an amendment clarifying congressional intent: ''Nothing in this title shall be construed to confer a constitutionally special political and legal relationship, based on Native Hawaiian race or ancestry, between the United States and the Native Hawaiian people for purposes of establishing a government-to-government relationship.''
The amendment failed. One of the Democratic arguments against it was that it would result in a referral of the larger bill to the Judiciary Committee. The intent of such a referral might well be to kill the bill, according to a Capitol Hill professional in legislative affairs; the more work that has to be done on a bill that is not a high priority of the whole Congress, the less likely that bill is to be enacted. A spokesman for a Republican on the committee said the intent of the amendment was simply to make the bill constitutional in view of a Supreme Court ruling against Native Hawaiian voting preferences.
The indisputable fact is that Republicans are pursuing a much different strategy on the bill than they did last year, and that strategy has been expressed in committee action.
The argument can be made that the amendment was not offered in ''regular order'' because it wasn't pertinent to the larger bill, as Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., chair of the Financial Services Committee, repeated several times during the hearing. House rules on the ''germaneness'' of an amendment to an original bill are stricter than in the Senate.
But usually, attempts to circumnavigate the regular order of Congress are more flagrant, and they have become more common in recent years as well. Late amendments, last-minute provision of bill contents to the opposition, lack of witness testimony, secretive scheduling, odd voting hours, timed-for-media announcements - all have taken their place as strategic tools for enacting legislation outside the channels of regular order.
One of the Senate's exceptions to regular order, known as ''hotlining'' a bill for expedited action, has been pressed into service on Indian issues a couple of times in recent years. The White House denied ''hotlining'' a bill to settle Western Shoshone land claims prior to the 2004 presidential election, but the allegation persists. Most recently, the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs asked Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to hotline a vote on the nomination of Carl Artman as head of the BIA. The justification is that the Senate followed regular order in forwarding Artman's nomination last year, but never brought it to a vote; the BIA, meanwhile, has been without an appointed leader for two full years.
Hotlining calls for committees of jurisdiction to yield their authority so that a bill (in this case, a nomination) can be speedily brought to a unanimous consent vote. Once hotlining is decided upon, the party ''cloakrooms'' send automated messages to the congressional office of each party member, advising of the action and asking if there's an objection. As with any other Senate action, a single objection, known as a ''hold,'' can put a hotlined item into cold storage, blocking its progress toward any floor vote. Under unanimous consent rules in the Senate, a single objection defeats a unanimous consent agreement.