It’s not that 12 weeks of paid family leave is a bad idea, or that federal employees ought to lose their health and life insurance during a lapse in federal funding. Or that the Office of Personnel Management should or should not merge with the General Services Administration.
What bugs me about these decisions by the majority in the House is not the content of the amendments. It’s that they had to occur as amendments to the must-pass National Defense Authorization Act. Paid family leave?
I’d like to see policies as important to the federal workforce as family leave and other features of the employer-employee-taxpayer compact discussed and debated on their own so a comprehensive rethinking of federal employment can take place. How many years has 12 weeks of paid family leave made it into one bill or another?
Other amendments sound germane in varying degrees to national defense. These include a block on weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, repeal of military force authority dating to 2002, prohibiting use of appropriated funds for military parades “for review by the president,” banning the military from spending money at properties owned by the Trump Organization, and ending the ban on Guantanamo Bay prisoners from coming to the U.S. for trial. I wonder if the Pentagon spends any money at Trump properties in the first place and whether it has any occasion to. I had lunch at the Trump Hotel in Washington, and it’s a stretch, pricewise, for even a generous expense account!
However worthy these amendments might be, another question is how much they’ll help or impede reconciliation with the Senate version. The main point of contention is the level of dollars authorized: $733 billion in the House version House and $750 billion in the Senate version. Plus, there are some direct Defense policy issues. For example, the House prohibits development of low-yield nuclear weapons while the Senate funds it.
Bills like NDAAs nowadays attract hundreds of amendments. In the view of some experts in the legislative process, amendments have become ever more partisan, in many cases incendiary. Because members can call for votes, a lot of partisanship surfaces.
In an essay at The Fulcrum, James D’Angelo of the Congressional Research Institute argues that congressional transparency is the cause of much of the rancor and partisanship in Congress. Before reforms enacted in 1970, amendments could be eliminated by secret ballots of the whole House, the Committee of the Whole. “Flame-throwing amendments were dispatched in secret,” D’Angelo writes. The rest received a public floor vote. “This calming layer of secrecy was essential,” he concludes. Any member could not, under the rules, force a vote like they can now.
Another possible byproduct of congressional dysfunction might be the concomitant rise in government by White House executive order. The back and forth on White House policy concerning, for example, the environment, federal labor relations, and immigration evidence this. Look how much of it ends up in court. About the only area of agreement seems to be cloud computing and data center consolidation.
In today’s Congress, important bills come packed with sometimes scores or hundreds of amendments. That’s a fact of life. Family leave or insurance continuance may not have been the sort of controversial “flamethrowers” that would derail a bill. In today’s political climate, some of the others certainly have that potential. Perhaps, as D’Angelo contends, the old way of killing amendments in secret would avoid making seemingly unpassable bills, or at least a Congress without all of the internecine rancor.
I realize members of the 115th Congress did not invent the unrelated amendment gambit. Still, it seems like a sub-optimal way to debate or enact things that are worthy of their own bills, or belong in a more germane bill.
The NDAA will pass, somehow. It will be close to the fiscal deadline. Perhaps, as long-time Congress-watcher (and regular Federal Drive guest) David Hawkings predicts, staff will smooth over the bumps during recess. Maybe paid leave and the other things will make it in, and next year something else on the human resource front will. I’d call that virtual legislation — the pieces get done but exist in pieces of law all over rather than as a single cogent law.