It Didn't Start With Nancy

When I get confused about the procedural and historical mysteries of Congress there is only one thing to do: call Norm Ornstein.

As anyone in Washington knows, there are no more knowledgeable students of the Hill than Norm, who is at the American Enterprise Institute, and his buddy Tom Mann of the Brookings Institution. They are authors of The Broken Branch, in paperback from Oxford—the best survey by far of the sorry state of Congress as an institution we need to trust, but don't.

I needed Norm to explain and put into context what Nancy Pelosi and Rahm Emanuel are trying to do in the House: construct a "vote" on the Senate's controversial health-care bill without requiring members to actually cast a recorded vote on the nasty thing.

Nancy and Co. are constructing a big trojan horse in which they will place the Senate bill and a budget reconciliation bill containing various amendments to it and other items. All of that, in turn, will be encased in the one item the House will actually vote on—a "rule" for debating the whole package.

In the House, a vote on the "rule" can make everything encased in it "deemed as passed." But there are no other specific votes. It's kinda like eating a pastry-wrapped cocktail hot dog, but insisting that you actually chose only to eat the pastry.

My question for Norm was whether this was outrageous or even unusual. Now Norm is no wild man: after all, he works at AEI, not known as a hotbed of anticorporate radicalism.

It turns out that using "self-executing" rule votes is not that rare. In fact, according to Norm, Dems and Republicans have been using them with abandon for a decade—dozens of times for each party as they were in power.

"It's not something I like, and I have written critically about it, but it's not out of bounds or even rare these days," he said. "A lot of the Republicans' feigned indignation about this is just that—feigned indignation."

So here's the bottom line: voting for a bill you don't like by not voting for it at all is just the way your Congress works these days.

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