John Feehery: Speaking Engagements


Pelosi Should Let the House Work Its Will

Posted on October 28, 2009

Speaker Nancy Pelosi suggested last week that there might not be much of an amendment process when health care reform is considered. In fact, in response to a reporter’s question regarding possible amendments dealing with the Roman Catholic Church’s concerns over abortion, she said: “We’re just finishing our policy on this legislation. We haven’t even gone into the procedure as to what will be on the floor, if there even are any amendments on the floor [emphasis added]. But we will have legislation.”

Far be it for me to give advice to a Democratic speaker, but if she clamps down on the process and allows no amendments to what could be the most consequential piece of domestic legislation in a generation, she will be making a tremendous mistake. In fact, I venture to guess that if she shuts down the process completely, it will cost her the speakership in the next election.

I understand how tempting it is to use all the levers of power in the House of Representatives. I know how many members put pressure on the speaker to avoid tough votes. I remember well how pesky, how annoying, how counterproductive the minority can seem to be. I remember all of those things because when I worked for Republicans who ran the House, they felt the same way toward the Democratic minority.

But I believed then, and I believe now, that an open process is better for democracy. It makes better laws. It makes for a fairer process. And because it gives each member a chance to participate in the process, it takes pressure off the speaker’s office.

Pelosi has to make a decision about contentious health care legislation. Should she let the House work its will or try to ram through her own priorities by twisting arms and buying votes?

Since we are in the middle of football season, here are three reasons why she should let the House work its will in an open debate.

Time of possession. In football, when one team has the ball on offense for most of the game, it usually wins the game. Same thing in politics. When the national debate is focused on one issue that generally favors one party over the other, the favored party usually wins.

For example, when the issue is taxes or national security, Republicans win. When it is health care or education, Democrats win. It will most likely take three to four weeks for the House to fully debate health care legislation. That means for three to four weeks, the nation’s attention will be focused completely on an issue that largely favors Democrats.

Historically (and currently), Democrats poll better on the issue handling when it comes to health care. Why wouldn’t the Democrats spend that much time on an issue that they do better on with the American people? Seems like a no-brainer to me.

Keeping the ball between the 40-yard lines. Most Americans consider themselves to be in the middle ideologically. An open debate that finds the will of the House will keep the health care debate similarly in the middle. If Pelosi tries to ram something through ideologically, she will be out of step with the desires of most Americans. Republicans argue that ours is a center-right country, while Democrats contend that the populace is center-left. Either way, the country starts in the center, not on the far left.

Three yards and a cloud of dust. It was Ohio State football coach Woody Hayes who popularized the kind of simple offense that emphasizes brute strength, precision blocking and hard running. The health care debate requires the same kind of legislative strategy. Giving members a chance to debate and vote on many of the complex health care issues is the best way for the legislative process to work. Allow members to vote on the public option, to vote on gutting the Medicare Advantage program, to vote on Medicaid, taxes and the other difficult issues that make up health care. Grinding out the process could be the best way to reach a real national consensus.

Of course, politics is not football. And debating an issue as important as health care is not a game. But for Pelosi, the stakes couldn’t be higher. Instead of retreating to backrooms and trying to cut deals and twist arms, the speaker and her Democratic leadership should bring the legislation to the floor and let the House work its will.

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