Facing the contentious issue of retooling the nation's bankruptcy laws, the Senate debated the bill for seven days this year, considering scores of amendments. When the House of Representatives took up the topic Thursday, it spent two hours on debate -- and that includes the hour allotted to discussing the rule under which the measure was brought up. Not one amendment could be offered. The bill, in our view, is flawed, although it is not nearly as dangerous as its critics maintain. But even its staunchest proponents should be embarrassed that it was muscled through the House in this kind of Potemkin-democracy way.
This process -- or, more precisely, lack of process -- is becoming routine. The House has never mimicked the Senate, with its tradition of unlimited debate, and there are benefits to its less free-wheeling ways. But it did have a tradition of some debate -- a tradition that is increasingly being ignored by the Republican majority. House Republicans are unabashedly improving upon the autocratic excesses they justifiably decried when Democrats were in power.
The bankruptcy bill offers a useful gauge of this diminishing democracy. As the accompanying chart illustrates, during the years in which the bankruptcy bill has been debated, the number of amendments allowed on the floor has steadily dwindled: from 12 in 1998 to zero Thursday. The amendments squelched by the Rules Committee included measures that would have given extra bankruptcy protections to victims of identity theft and to military personnel returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., R-Wis., said as the debate opened that the bankruptcy bill had enjoyed "more process, more consideration, more debate, more voting than virtually any other legislative item in the last decade." Perhaps so, but the fact that something was fully debated in the 105th Congress shouldn't mean it gets railroaded through the 109th. New members are voting, and different issues have arisen. Sensenbrenner had a stronger point when he noted that Democrats rejected the majority's offer to let them have a vote on an alternative measure. But the notion of allowing amendments isn't just to let the other side score political points -- it's to give lawmakers a chance to improve legislation that will be adopted.
You don't have to be a master legislative technician to understand what's going on here. The banks and credit card companies that have spent millions pressing for the measure see victory in sight after years of struggle. Any amendment that makes the House bill deviate from the Senate version could land the measure in conference and potentially gum up the works, particularly with a Senate slowdown looming over the question of filibustering judges. As for a choice between the values of deliberative democracy and the interests of the credit industry, we know where we come down. Thursday's sham debate makes clear where House Republicans come down too.
-- Washington Post
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