Rules Dispute May Stall Congress

Republican lawmakers complain about Democrats' restrictions on amendments

AS gridlock back?

President Clinton chides Republicans for dismantling his jobs program and for threatening his tax and health care proposals.

Republicans fingerpoint right back. They call Mr. Clinton's jobs bill a "pork" bill. They complain angrily that the GOP is ignored, stifled, and steamrollered by majority Democrats in Congress.

The interparty feud is deepening. The dispute threatens to tie Congress in knots like a Los Angeles freeway at rush hour.

Every American has a stake in this dispute. Bills passed by Congress during the next two years will shape the American job market throughout much of the 1990s.

On Capitol Hill, some members now are trying to forge a compromise. A number of Republicans, promising to act in good faith, vow they are ready to craft better legislation, and support solid economic programs. But first they must be permitted to play a bigger role in shaping bills through their own amendments.

Democrats, expressing doubts, worry that Republicans want to destroy the Clinton programs, not improve them. But they promise not to roll over the Republican minority.

Much of this struggle is focused on the House rules - a subject so arcane, complex, and boring to most Americans that it produces only yawns.

Yet the rules, imposed by the Democratic majority, are so critical to Congress that Republicans complain that the system is making them irrelevant to the legislative process. That has produced two results:

* Republicans, angered by all this, are more united than in years. They charge Democrats with turning the House into a blatantly undemocratic institution.

* Republicans are turning their ire into action, as the president saw when his stimulus package was filibustered to death in the Senate.

Republicans say the rules put too many limits on amendments that may be offered on the House floor.

Example: Before the House voted on the recent budget resolution, Republicans wanted to offer an amendment deleting the BTU tax on energy. The amendment was blocked, without a floor vote, by the Democrat-controlled Rules Committee.

Rep. David Dreier of California, 1 of 4 Republicans on the Rules Committee, says: "We want the American people to be aware ... that disenfranchisement is taking place right here in the Congress."

Rep. Porter Goss of Florida, the junior Republican on the Rules Committee, calls himself "shocked" by the way the committee rejects proposals for a floor vote. But he admits that for most Americans, "talking about rules is about as exciting as talking about the grass growing."

ARE Democrats being too highhanded? Norman Ornstein, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and an authority on Congress, says: "The Republicans do have a point."

Dr. Ornstein says Congress is unusual because there is pent-up demand for Democrats to quickly pass bills that were bottled up during the Reagan-Bush years.

"At the same time, there are lots of people in the Democratic Party who want as many issues as possible closed to amendments, reasonable or otherwise. The House is, and should be, a majoritarian institution. The majority should be able to rule it. But there is a balance to be struck between majority control and minority rights," Ornstein says.

A Republican study released last week shows that restrictive rules that limit amendments rose from 15 percent of all bills in the 95th Congress (1977-78) to 66 percent in the 102nd Congress (1991-92) to 100 percent so far in the current 103rd.

Despite all this, Democrats firmly defend themselves. At a breakfast meeting with reporters last week, House Speaker Thomas Foley (D) of Washington accused his critics of mischief.

"No majority should allow the minority ... to block the decision that the majority has the right to take. Now that doesn't mean you have to run over every expression and opinion on the Republican side," Mr. Foley says.

The speaker accuses Republicans in the Senate of using the filibuster to destroy the president's agenda. That isn't going to happen in the House, he vows.

"We have the capacity in the House to prevent a minority from being totally obstructive. And we're going to use it," Foley says.

When that quote is read back to Rep. Robert Michel (R) of Illinois, the House minority leader, he shakes his head. "My objective is not one of thwarting the will of the House," Mr. Michel says. "All we want is a simple opportunity to get a decision of the House in a free manner with opportunities for offering amendments. If we go down, we go down. Then you think you've had your fair day in court."

Michel dismisses the notion that the GOP will shower every bill with dozens of amendments to tie up the House.

"That's just nonsense," he says. "I would personally do everything I possibly could to thwart that kind of effort because it demeans the process."

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