House Vote On ACA Put Spotlight On Little Pondered ‘Minority’s Motion’

July 14, 2020 by Dan McCue
Justice, Law and Order. The U.S. Capitol. (Photo by Dan McCue)

WASHINGTON – The recent passage of the first significant expansion of the Affordable Care Act provided House Democrats with a high profile opportunity to draw distinctions between how they and their Republican colleagues differ on the health care law.

It was a line in the sand moment. Even before the 234-179 vote was cast, the White House announced president Trump would veto the legislation if it ever reached his desk.

But then, something largely unexpected happened.

Party lines evaporated over a motion to recommit the measure — the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Enhancement Act — to the Energy and Commerce Committee to ensure the ambitious bill would not hamper the development of a coronavirus vaccine.

The motion was introduced by Rep. Greg Walden, an Oregon Republican. But in the end, though it was defeated 223-187, nine House Democrats voted for it.

They were Reps. Anthony Brindisi, of New York, Abby Finkenaur, of Iowa, Jared Golden, of Maine, Josh Gottheimer, of New Jersey, Ben McAdams, of Utah, Stephanie Murphy, of Florida, Collin Peterson, of Minnesota, Max Rose, of New Jersey, and Mikie Sherrill, of New Jersey.

With members out of town, it fell to staff to explain the defections. Despite a shared reluctance to speak on the record on behalf of their members, the consensus derived from these explanations was straightforward.

To a member, they, like Walden, saw the motion to recommit as a way to be especially sure the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Enhancement Act didn’t stymie progress on a vaccine now considered critical to the nation’s returning to a semblance of the normal it knew before the pandemic.

“Let’s at least make sure that an unintended, but dangerous consequence of this bill does not take effect,” Walden said on the House floor. “Let’s make sure that it will not inhibit research and innovation for a treatment or a cure to COVID-19.”

Motions to recommit are not unusual, though the stakes vary markedly.

While the casual observer might tune out when they occur, thinking them just so much “floor business,” they are actually highly important, giving the House one final opportunity to affect a measure, either by amending it or sending it back to committee.

The motion to recommit is often referred to as “the minority’s motion,” because preference in recognition for offering a motion to recommit is given to a member of the minority party who is opposed to the bill – in this most recent case, Rep. Walden.

According to the Congressional Research Service, the stated purpose of giving the minority party this right was to allow them to “have a vote upon its position upon great public questions.”

House rules protect this minority right.

A Bit of History

The motion to recommit is a vestige of the British Parliament and has existed in some form since the very first Congress assembled.

Prior to 1909, however, it was used in a far different manner than it is today. Early on, motions to recommit were used by the majority to safeguard legislation it wanted passed.

By rule, only one proper motion to recommit is in order, so the House Speakers of olden days would seek a motion from members on their side, in order to preclude anyone else from trying to use the motion in order to defeat or amend the measure.

House Speaker Joseph Cannon (1903-1911) summed the strategy up best when he said, “The object of this provision [for a motion to recommit] was, as the chair has always understood, that the motion should be made by one friendly to the bill.”

The use of the motion to recommit changed substantially in 1909 after a revolt by a coalition of House Democrats and Progressive Republicans who opposed Speaker Cannon’s legendarily autocratic style of leadership.

The issue came to a head when the bipartisan coalition moved to amend House rules and boot Cannon from the Rules Committee, of which he was then chairman. Cannon beat back the effort, then recognized Rep. John Fitzgerald, a Tammany Democrat from New York, who offered a substitute amendment that established the rules for the use of a motion to recommit that exist today.

Though attempts have been made to chip away at the minority’s right to use a motion to recommit to have its voice heard, none have been successful for very long.

Straight Motions

Motions to recommit come in two forms. There are so-called “straight” motions and those that include instructions.

A member offering a straight motion to recommit is seeking to send the measure to committee with no requirement for further consideration by the House. If adopted, it returns the underlying measure to committee for additional work.

If the underlying legislation was not first reported by the committee of jurisdiction before coming to the floor — either because it was never referred to committee or because the committee was discharged from further consideration of the bill — the minority might try to use the motion as a way to put the legislation before the committee for its consideration.

Interestingly, a straight motion to recommit can be used to effectively dispose of an underlying measure. This is because while the motion may send a measure back to a committee, that panel is in no way obligated to take further action.

Debate in the House on a straight motion to recommit may, however, provide a committee with a non-binding understanding of what should be done to improve the measure.

Motion with Instructions

A member offering a motion to recommit with instructions seeks to immediately amend the underlying bill on the House floor.

If adopted, the measure will remain on the House floor and the committee chair (or a designee) will immediately rise and report the bill back to the House with any amendments contained in the instructions of the recommittal motion.

The House then votes on the amendments before moving on to final passage of the bill.

Taken together, these motions to recommit can have a range of procedural effects, ranging from amending the underlying measure to sending it to one or more committees to potentially disposing of the legislation all together.

Motions to recommit also have political effects, namely allowing a member to go on record as supporting or opposing a specific policy, and creating a public record of the minority party’s differences from the platform of the majority.

Practical Matters

In practice, the motion to recommit is offered after the previous question has been ordered on passage.

Both types of motions to recommit are debatable for 10 minutes.

The majority floor manager of a bill or joint resolution may ask that debate time be extended to one hour. In either case, debate time is equally divided between the member making the motion and a member opposing it.

A few general rules apply to all motions to recommit. These include that any amendment offered be germane to the measure. They also must not amend or strike any amendment already adopted by the House, and they cannot require that a committee report on the bill by a day certain.

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