Showdown at the not-so-OK Corral

The final day of a congressional session before a summer recess can be a carnival of cacophony, chaos, and conflict, especially just three months out from a critical midterm election that could flip majority control of one or both chambers.    

Friday, July 29, 2022, was just such a get-away day in the House (the Senate would stay on another week to wrap-up its business). Both houses had already racked up a list of accomplishments they could proudly tout back home with their constituents.  The House had agreed to a Senate-passed amendment to a long-stalled “chips and science” bill to restore American preeminence in the manufacture of computer semi-conductor microchips. And Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) brokered an agreement on a major, $369-billion economic package to address climate change, energy production, health care costs, tax code revisions, and deficit reduction. 

The monkey wrench thrown into the cogs of this otherwise rapidly churning legislative sausage-making machine was a last-minute decision Thursday to bring to the House floor on Friday a bill making it a crime to sell, manufacture, transfer, import, or possess designated semiautomatic weapons. Earlier in the week, the Rules Committee was scheduled to take up that bill along with six other gun-violence/public health and safety related measures. But the planned Tuesday meeting was postponed shortly beforehand, “subject to the call of the chair.”  Something was obviously afoot or gone awry, but no public explanation was given.  

As the Washington Post reported on Saturday (July 30), the assault weapons ban that passed on its own Friday, 217-213, was a “politically fraught issue that tested the unity of the [Democratic] Caucus.” Five Democrats voted against the assault weapons bill and two others were persuaded at the last minute to change their votes from “nay” to “yea” to save the bill from defeat. 

What was at play, according to the Post account, were battles among various factions within the party: the Congressional Black Caucus, the Progressive Caucus, and a band of moderate Democrats from swing districts. The CBC wanted “guardrails” on the law enforcement assistance measures to prevent abuse; the Progressives were insisting on first passing the assault weapons ban that week, while delaying action on the other six bills until August to allow for further modifications. The moderates were squeezed-out in the middle and apparently furious that the balanced package approach they supported was jettisoned.   

Add to all this the outrage of House Republicans when an emergency Rules Committee meeting was called at 7 p.m. Thursday (the same hour former professional baseball player Roberto Clemente Jr. threw-out the first pitch at the congressional baseball game). What the Democrats needed was a special rule to waive the requirement of a two-thirds vote for same-day floor consideration of a second rulemaking in order for the assault weapons ban vote on Friday. 

At 9:15 a.m. Friday, the initial waiver rule was called-up, debated, and then adopted around 11:45. Then, at high noon, the Rules Committee met in another emergency session to clear the way for the second rule providing for consideration of the gun ban bill by a majority, rather than two-thirds, vote. (If you have followed all this procedural jerking-around thus far, you deserve a gold medal, or at least a neck rub).     

While the overflow of procedural moves seemed like a cascading river of riveting drama, it was not riveting enough to hold the presence of 28 percent of House members. By the time of the final passage vote at 6:30 p.m. Friday, only 309 of the 431 sitting House members were still around in the chamber to vote, even though 377 members were there for the first vote that morning.   

What saved the vote for Democrats was that 121 members (including some Republicans) cast their votes remotely by proxy (compared to only 64 proxy votes cast around noon). Proxies have been allowed since May 2020 to protect the institution during the pandemic emergency. The emergency rule allowed members to sign a letter to the Clerk affirming they were “unable to physically attend the proceedings of the House” because of “the public health emergency,” and allowed them to designate in their letter a member to cast their votes for them on the floor, specifying how they would vote on each anticipated rollcall. 

Friday, July 29, was “senior skip day,” or, more accurately, “member sick-out day.” Although most of those new-born proxy huggers had not suddenly been stricken by illness, by invoking the health threat in their signed affirmation letter,  the ploy opened a convenient loophole for them to leave town early while still being held accountable for their votes. Fortunately, fellow passengers on their flights back home were not aware of the fleeing members’ agony of retreat. 

Don Wolfensberger is a Congress Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, former chief-of-staff of the House Rules Committee, and author of, “Changing Cultures in Congress: From Fair Play to Power Plays.”  The views expressed are solely his own.