What is “Deeming,” Anyway? The Health Care Debate
Could the massive health care overhaul be “deemed” passed without the House taking a vote on it? That’s what they’re talking about this week. Let’s try to unpack what the heck is going on. And let’s try to have fun doing it!
It takes 60 votes to pass a controversial bill in the Senate because of a thing called the “cloture” rule. It’s a vote early in the process on whether to proceed with debate. If 41 senators don’t want to see a bill move and they vote against cloture, consideration of the bill doesn’t proceed, and the bill doesn’t pass.
After the Christmas eve vote in the Senate, there was a different kind of vote in Massachusetts—to decide who would succeed Ted Kennedy (D) in the Senate. Republican Scott Brown won.
As important as it was in signaling public concern about the health care issue, it took away the 60th Democratic vote in the Senate. Because of the cloture rule, now a Republican has to vote for a controversial bill or the bill can’t pass. And there are no Republicans backing the health care overhaul.
The House could just go ahead and pass the version of the bill that came out of the Senate. That idea that was batted around for a while, but enough House Democrats oppose parts of the Senate bill that it’s not going to happen.
So if there’s going to be a health care overhaul, there need to be changes to the Senate bill that accommodate members in the House. But that bill couldn’t return to the Senate and get a vote because of the cloture rule.
Now we need to know some more process: There are some votes in the Senate that don’t follow a cloture vote. “Reconciliation” is part of the annual budget process in which Congress marries up its new budget plan with the programs the government has running. You can get to a final vote on a reconciliation bill with a simple majority, not the 60 votes you need for other bills. So why not pass a health care bill in reconciliation?
That’s the direction things are headed—except there are a couple of problems with that. One is that it would break some important traditions in the Senate, which does pride itself on its careful deliberation (especially compared to the House—bunch of savages, they are).
Another is that substantive law changes aren’t supposed to go on reconciliation bills—just budget stuff. You can change the level of spending on a government program, for example—that’s budgetary—but you couldn’t outlaw the possession of a rare breed of snake. That doesn’t affect the budget.
But what about passing the Senate bill in the House, while promising the House Democrats who don’t like it that another bill will be passed in the Senate to fix the problems with the overhaul bill? That would give them the bill they want even if they have to hold their noses and vote for a bad bill. A smaller, “fixer” bill might be able to get through the Senate on reconciliation.
But that’s not quite good enough. Many House Democrats don’t trust the Senate—they’re so snooty and slow, those senators, and they might double-cross the House Democrats. And these Democrats really, really don’t want to cast a “yes” vote on that Senate bill.
Now we have to talk a little bit about House rules. (Why should the Senate have all the fun?) The procedures for debate on important bills in the House are usually established by a resolution which is debated and passed before the House gets to the main bill. The resolution is called a “rule,” and a rule might say something like: “Debate lasts for two hours, with the time divided equally. No objections are allowed based on [this or that provision of the House rules]. And everybody has to wear a clown nose.” (Ignore that last part. It was a joke.)
To keep those worried House Democrats from having to vote on the Senate bill, the current talk is to use what’s called a “self-executing rule.” That’s a rule saying that when the House adopts it, the House simultaneously agrees to some other matter—in this case, the Senate health care bill.
The effect would be that the House never takes a vote on the Senate health care bill. It’s just “deemed” approved when the rule on the “fixer” bill is approved. (Here’s more than you ever wanted to know about self-executing rules.)
Would that work politically? Hard to know. Republicans would scream, “YOU VOTED ON THE RULE THAT APPROVED THE SENATE BILL! THAT’S JUST LIKE VOTING FOR THE SENATE BILL!!!!!!!!!!” (Yes, they would use that many exclamation points. They see this as a real political opportunity.) And there are arguments that you can’t actually “deem” important bills passed. You’ve got to have a vote.
So there is the deal with “deeming.” If nothing else, it will make you the best informed person at the cocktail party this weekend. Or it will get you disinvited from every cocktail party that ever happens again. That’s up to you.
The outcome of the health care debate is up to you too. You can reach your Member of Congress by dialing 202-224-3121. Be polite.