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Perhaps you’re exhausted from debates on Twitter about “My Pillow.”
And those sports reruns. Was Duke really the only school to play in every meaningful basketball game of the past three decades?
So now you’re wondering exactly what in the world went on the other day on Capitol Hill. That’s when Congress struggled to adopt the coronavirus bill. What was going on with Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY)? And why, oh why couldn’t lawmakers vote from the comfort of their living rooms – while watching Christian Laettner, Bobby Hurley and Mike Krzyzewski, of course?
So, let’s explore what happened during the coronavirus debate last week.
Let’s start with the controversy in the House about taking a “recorded vote” on the coronavirus bill.
Some suggested the House somehow “cheated” or used a shady backdoor method to approve the $2.2 trillion coronavirus package.
Under normal circumstances, lawmakers would insist on their presence to vote on the plan. The bill is the largest in U.S. history and could prove to be the most consequential piece of legislation of the modern era. The Senate voted 96-0 on the plan. Ninety-six of all 100 sitting U.S. senators were present and voted in person on the measure. The four who missed the vote either tested positive for coronavirus or were quarantined.
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The House Democratic and Republican leadership teams worked together in hopes of okaying the coronavirus measure via voice vote. That’s where everyone in the chamber hollers “aye” and those opposed shout “no.” The chair judges the decibels. Thus, the loudest side prevails. Leaders on both sides hoped to approve the bill with just a skeleton crew on hand. Consider this: the House approached the coronavirus vote with 430 members. That’s 330 more members than the entire Senate. The push for a voice vote was about health and safety. The leaders – as well as U.S. Capitol Attending Physician Dr. Brian Monahan – were genuinely concerned about amplifying the health risk to the country by dragging hundreds of lawmakers back to Washington, exposing the public, exposing the lawmakers to one another, exposing Congressional staff, exposing U.S. Capitol Police officers, exposing Congressional maintenance workers and custodians, exposing the Capitol press corps…
You get the idea.
So, it would be more hygienic to pass the bill with just a few members in the chamber. And, a voice vote allowed those both for and against the issue to express their positions – albeit vocally.
However, Massie was determined to drag everyone back to Washington to vote. One could argue it may be critical for the House to take a full roll call vote on such an incredibly expensive piece of legislation – even if only a handful of lawmakers were likely to vote nay.
But this is an extraordinary time. And the very idea of lugging hundreds of lawmakers together in the same room flies in the face of every piece of public health guidance disseminated anywhere in the world over the past month.
A “voice vote” isn’t some special gambit to rig the system. The House approves bills, amendments and resolutions via one of four methods:
- Voice vote: Explained above.
- Division vote: Division votes are rare in the House these days. If the House orders a division vote – perhaps because the Speaker wasn’t certain as to which side was more boisterous on a voice vote – then those in favor rise to be counted. Then, those opposed stand and are counted, too. That’s the “division.”
- Unanimous consent: This is where a lawmaker on the floor asks that the House approve a given measure via “unanimous consent.” It means just that. All members in the House, and, more superficially on the floor, must be in favor of that matter. However, if any member on the floor vocally interjects “I object,” then it lacks unanimous consent. In short, all 434 members of the 435 member House (if the House was at full membership) could favor passage of a bill. But it only takes one member to object, thus blocking unanimous consent.
- A recorded, roll call vote: The House instituted an electronic voting system in the chamber in 1973. Each member is given a plastic voting card. They insert their card into various machines sprinkled around the chamber and press buttons reading either yea, nay or present. The House had already taken 102 roll call votes through March 14 for this calendar year. Massie wanted a roll call vote so every member was “on the record” regarding the gargantuan, $2.2 trillion package.
Here was the problem for Massie:
When debate time expires on almost every bill or amendment, the House usually conducts an automatic vote by voice. Again, all members in the chamber shout either yea or nay. Rep. Anthony Brown (D-MD) presided over the coronavirus debate. When the voice vote popped up, it was obvious there were far many more ayes than noes.
“The ayes have it,” said Brown, technically passing the bill.
But, one can contest that the House is not finished at that stage. That’s where Massie requested “a recorded vote.”
Things get tricky here. In most instances, lawmakers want to be on the record. They want a recorded vote. House Rule XX requires that only “one-fifth of those present” stand on their feet to demonstrate solidarity with the request for a recorded vote. That’s just a fraction of those in the chamber. In most instances, members rise. But not on Friday. They sat on their hands. They opposed a recorded vote.
Usually, at this stage, the presiding officer announces that “a sufficient number having arisen, members will record their vote by electronic device.”
But not Friday.
After a quick scan of the chamber, Brown determined that “a recorded vote is refused.” Hardly anyone was on their feet.
But another issue lurked for those who wanted to dispense with the coronavirus bill quickly and hygienically. A member could lodge a “point of order.” A point of order is essentially a grievance that the House isn’t operating within the rules. It wasn’t so much that Massie might order a roll call vote. The worry was that the House may lack a quorum to conduct business. Such a scenario would prompt the point of order. Article I, Section 5 of the Constitution requires a quorum be present in the House and Senate to execute business. A quorum constitutes just over half of all members. Former Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC) is now White House Chief of Staff. So, the total population of the House declined to 429 members. But on Friday, the House had 430 members. That meant the House needed 216 members present to qualify for a quorum. Otherwise, Massie or any other member, may have been able to stymie the House from voting on the bill through making a point of order. You can’t go to a roll call vote if the House lacks a quorum.
Passage of the coronavirus bill was never in doubt. But the issue was whether the House could have a quorum on hand to validate the voice vote. That’s why so many lawmakers rushed back to Washington. The key was constituting a quorum in the House chamber. And that’s why so many lawmakers of both parties have nothing but enmity for Massie. They believe the Kentucky Republican singlehandedly jeopardized the health and safety of the House – to say nothing of the people lawmakers may have encountered just to scurry back to Capitol Hill.
In other words, it’s a healthier in today’s circumstances to pass a bill with ten people in a big room as opposed to at least 216.
So, back to the House floor on Friday.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) and Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) signed off on a plan to throw open every door to the House chamber – both on the floor and in the public viewing gallery one level above. The doors stood open in an effort to aerate the room. Lawmakers spread out on both floors to practice social distancing.
After Brown informed Massie that not enough members stood up to require a call recall vote, Massie went the quorum route.
“I object on the basis that a quorum is not present and I make a point of order that a quorum is not present,” said Massie.
“The chair will count for a quorum,” responded Brown.
Again, the Maryland Democrat briefly surveyed the chamber.
“A quorum is present,” intoned Brown. “The motion is adopted.”
Brown then reached for the gavel and rapped it on the dais.
The bill was passed – by voice vote – two steps prior.
Not enough members rose to trigger a recorded vote. And, Brown deemed a quorum was present. Brown then quickly adjourned the House. Massie was stuck.
Was it pretty? Not really.
Much of the sausage-making in Washington is pretty ugly, frankly. Consider the verbal contretemps which erupted on the Senate floor recently as senators raged about the coronavirus bill.
This won’t be the last bill Congress approves to respond to coronavirus. But until then, you can go back to watching reruns of Duke basketball.