Causes Q&A: Your Questions Answered - May 2021
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by Ask Causes | 6.4.21
May turned into June this week, which means it’s time for us to dig into the monthly mailbag to answer some of your questions about bills and Congress! In keeping with the routine, you can submit questions for June that we’ll answer at the end of the month here, but in the meantime let’s dive into those questions (which may be edited or combined for clarity and length).
Why does one person have almost as much or more power than others in the Senate or House of Representatives to shut down progress. Why can’t there be a requirement that Congress has to review bills and vote on them? ― Jorjita56
- Hi Jorjita! The agenda in both the House and the Senate is controlled by the speaker and majority leader, respectively, except for a handful of cases. The leaders determine whether a bill or nomination reaches the floor for a vote, and when they add something to the schedule for a vote it’s usually because they either have the votes to advance it or want to score political points on the minority by forcing them to use the legislative filibuster in the case of the Senate.
- There are certain types of bills that have privileged status and are required to be considered on the floor regardless of whether the chamber’s leader supports it. Privileged status applies to disapproval resolutions under the Congressional Review Act, which allows Congress to overturn regulations with the president’s OK; it also applies to bills offered under the War Powers Resolution to require the withdrawal of U.S. military forces; and bills to block arms sales under the Arms Export Control Act.
- Beyond privileged legislation, both chambers of Congress have a process known as a “discharge petition” which allows a majority of lawmakers to bring a bill to the floor for a vote and bypass committees. A discharge petition is the legislative equivalent of the “Advance to GO, Collect $200” card in Monopoly.
- In the House, 218 members can sign a discharge petition to bring a bill to the floor against the leadership’s wishes. However, they rarely succeed, as most discharge petitions are offered by members of the party in the minority, and members of the majority typically don’t want to get on the bad side of their party’s leaders. Currently, there are four discharge petitions pending in the House.
- It’s a bit more challenging in the Senate, where the sign-off of 60 senators ― the amount needed to overcome the legislative filibuster ― is required for a discharge petition to succeed. The simple majority threshold applies for Senate discharge petitions that are related to nominations or to types of legislation that only require a simple majority vote (such as Congressional Review Act disapproval resolutions).
What are the rules for expelling a member of Congress when their behavior is unacceptable? When was the last time Congress voted on imposing term limits on themselves, and is there any plan to introduce similar legislation coming soon? ― Brian
- Good questions, Brian! In terms of expulsions in Congress, it’s ultimately up to the lawmakers in either chamber to determine whether one of their colleagues has done something worthy of expulsion. While members occasionally introduce resolutions to expel one of their colleagues ― in the current Congress expulsion resolutions target Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) and Maxine Waters (D-CA) ― those rarely get a vote.
- The last member of Congress to be expelled was Rep. James Traficant (D-OH) in 2002 for illegal gratuity, conspiracy, obstruction of justice, defrauding the government, racketeering, and tax evasion after he used campaign funds for personal use (he later launched an unsuccessful run for Congress while serving a prison sentence).
- As far as term limits in Congress, the only vote in recent decades occurred during the 104th Congress in 1995, the House voted on a constitutional amendment to enact term limits which failed to get the two-thirds majority required on a 227-204 vote. The vote was largely along party-lines as most Republicans were in favor 189-40 and Democrats were mostly opposed 38-163.
- While there are a handful of term limit proposals that get introduced in each Congress, including the current Congress, there are no plans to vote on the matter in large part because it would require the enactment of a constitutional amendment to reverse a Supreme Court ruling, which a requires two-thirds supermajority support in both chambers plus ratification by 38 states. A 1995 Supreme Court case known as U.S. Term Limits, Inc. v. Thornton, which struck down term limits 23 states had imposed on members of Congress with a 5-4 ruling (current Justice Stephen Breyer was in the majority while Justice Clarence Thomas dissented).
Why are bills voted on before the citizens these people are supposed to be representing can even read it? ― John
- Hi John! Congress has internal rules that are designed to give the public time to read and digest legislation ahead of a vote, although they don’t always abide by them.
- In the House, there is what’s known as the 72-hour rule, which requires a committee report about a bill reported from committee to have been available for 72 hours before a vote. Usually, this is satisfied by posting the bill text, committee report, and other materials on the House Clerk’s website.
- However, the House can waive the 72-hour rule by considering bills under the fast-track “suspension of the rules” process which requires a two-thirds majority for passage; adopting a special rule that waives the 72-hour rule (also known as “same day authority” or “martial law” in the House); adopting a special rule that waives the one-day wait requirement for another special rule; and convening more than one legislative day on the same calendar day.
- The Senate doesn’t have a 72-hour rule and in some cases can pass bills the same day they’re brought to the floor if there is unanimous consent to waive procedural barriers, such as the cloture motion (aka the legislative filibuster). If there isn’t consent to waive cloture, the majority leader has to introduce a cloture motion on day 1, let it “ripen” and sit idle on day 2, before it can receive a vote on day 3 that requires 60 votes to limit further debate to no more than 30 hours. Sometimes more than one cloture motion is brought up during consideration of a bill, which can make for a lengthy debate.
When will you update Bills? I show only the one from April on the time change. Also, I’m not getting any notifications. Did something change on the last update? ― Lisa
- Hi Lisa! So it turns out there is a bug with the “Bills” page that’s impacting which bills show up and is excluding the numerous bills we’ve summarized from the congressional schedule that we featured in the feed in the “VOTES TODAY!” carousel.
- Our engineers are aware of the issue and aim to have it fixed soon, and once that’s done you’ll be able to see all the bills we’ve summarized from the current Congress on the “Bills” page.
- In the meantime, you can find the latest bills we’ve summarized in the feed and on the weekly This Week in Congress post. When you’re looking at the This Week in Congress schedule, the bills in the House that we’ve summarized are always at the top of the daily agenda.
- Regarding notifications, that may depend on the platform you’re using. If you’re an Android user like myself, there is a bug impacting those notifications that and it is on our radar. If you’re an Apple user on an iOS operating system, notifications should be working for you, and if you primarily use the website you should have the ability to receive browser notifications. If you read this and the above hasn’t helped your issue and you want help troubleshooting send me an email at ericr[at]countable.com and I’ll try to help!
- A closing note: you can find the June mailbag here, so feel free to ask more questions and we’ll try to address them next month!
— Eric Revell
(Photo Credit: Canva)
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