John Feehery: Speaking Engagements

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Irrational Fear of the Poison Pill

Posted on October 28, 2009
The Poison Pill

As Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi attempts to put a health care reform bill together that will meet the various requirements laid down by the White House (deficit-neutral, no abortion language, no health care insurance for illegal immigrants, no new taxes on middle class voters) and tries to square that reality with her own assurances (that it will include a “robust” public option), she also has to make a decision about what kind of process she will use to get her bill passed through the House.

It won’t be easy to get done for many reasons, mostly because all of the promises don’t match up with reality.

Pelosi has hinted that because her bill is so fragile, so complicated and so perfect, that she won’t allow the Republicans to consider any amendments.

Undoubtedly, she is concerned about so-called poison pills that will be offered by the minority to either put her vulnerable members in a difficult position back home or to make the over-all bill so unpalatable that it will crash and burn.

I happen to think that this bill will be so bad that it will crash and burn on its own, so I think concerns over poison pills are unrealistic.

According to Wikipedia, the “poison pill is a term referring to any strategy, generally in business or politics, to increase the likelihood of negative results over positive ones for a party that attempts any kind of takeover. It derives from its original meaning of a literal poison pill carried by various spies throughout history, taken when discovered to eliminate the possibility of being interrogated for the enemy's gain.”

Sometimes poison pills end up making a bill better. Sometimes, they end up making history.

In 1964, Speaker John McCormack (and a discharge petition introduced by liberal New York Congressman Manny Cellar) forced a reluctant Rules Committee Chairman, Howard Smith to bring civil rights legislation to the floor under an open rule. Smith and his southern conservative allies tried a variety of tactics to defeat the legislation, including by adding poison pill amendments. One such poison pill amendment offered by Smith was to add sexual discrimination to the list of things that were no longer allowed under the civil rights act. But the joke was on him, as that poison pill not only stayed in the House passed version, but eventually made it in as an essential part of the far-reaching law.

And now, the first female Speaker of the House, who undoubtedly profited from a poison-pill amendment that eventually become the law of the land, has to make a decision about contentious health care legislation. Sadly, it looks like she will shut down the amendment process, all because she is worried that her “perfect” bill will collapse under the weight of a few “poison pill” amendments. She shouldn’t. She should let the House work its will.