November 24, 2003,
Imagine election authorities in your town keeping the polls open for an extra two hours and 38 minutes until enough voters adopted a ballot measure that officials favored. Outrage would erupt, and rightly so. Conservatives and free marketeers should be similarly indignant about the way Republican House leaders extracted victory, like impacted molars, from the jaws of defeat.
After three hours of debate on the Medicare drug plan, the yeas and nays were ordered at 3:00 Saturday morning. "This will be a 15-minute vote," presiding officer Rep. Richard "Doc" Hastings (R., Wash.) said with a slam of his gavel. While some House votes take just five minutes, most last 15. They may linger for another two to three minutes to accommodate stragglers who arrive tardily on the floor or to let party whips quickly plead with potentially wayward members. This is roughly akin to driving 70 in a 65 mile-per-hour zone.
Saturday morning's action, however, more closely resembled a drag race outside a retirement home.
I turned on C-SPAN at around 5:30 A.M. expecting to learn how the $409.8 billion proposal had fared. Instead, I learned that the vote was 216 yeas to 218 nays. I was thrilled that 26 Republicans had agreed that this bill was too much government (a universal entitlement) chasing too manageable a problem (the 22 percent of seniors without drug coverage). All but about 15 Democrats opposed the bill for not doing even more, thus dooming this proposal to defeat.
So why was the House still voting?
In an extraordinary move which will fuel Democratic paranoia that Republicans break the rules to swipe votes they cannot win, the House GOP leadership broke the rules to swipe a vote they could not win.
"We won it fair and square," said House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California, "and they stole it by hook and crook." Pelosi added in a statement that Republican conduct "brought dishonor to this institution." She told Reuters: "I guess it's in their DNA. They just can't play by the rules."
In this case, at least, Nancy Pelosi is right.
GOP leaders stretched until 5:53 A.M. a vote that should have ended at 3:15 A.M. This extra time gave them, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson (who uncustomarily trolled the House floor for votes) and eventually President Bush (who phoned from the White House) an opportunity to turn GOP representatives C. L. "Butch" Otter of Idaho and Arizona's Trent Franks from nays to yeas. Their flip-flops prompted Ernest Istook (R., Ok.) to reverse himself while David Wu (D., Wash.) finally joined the winning team. The final vote was 220 yeas to 215 nays.
For a party that correctly spent the Clinton years and the Florida presidential-recount saga defending the rule of law, GOP House leaders assaulted it as the nation slept. That they undermined House procedures with this record-breaking vote not to cut taxes or fund counterterrorism (which would have been bad enough) but to inaugurate the largest expansion in the federal welfare state since 1965 should enrage rank-and-file Republicans across America.
House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois, Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas and other GOP leaders should be deeply ashamed of themselves for exceeding the impropriety of former Democratic speaker Thomas Foley of Washington. On August 19, 1994, he used a 73-minute vote to help fellow Democrats find enough GOP votes to pass a Clinton-backed anti-crime measure. Rather than rise above such shenanigans, top Republicans this weekend sunk to even lower levels of contempt for the House's traditions and practices.
Beyond the perpetrators of this abuse of power, conservatives and free-marketeers should be disappointed by the 204 Republicans who ignored months of warnings about this bill's excessive scope, costs, and complexity. If this bill is enacted, when the grim predictions about it come to pass, these GOP lawmakers will not be to claim they were not cautioned by pro-market commentators as well as scholars and activists at the Heritage Foundation, Institute for Health Freedom, National Taxpayers Union Foundation, Cato Institute, National Center for Public Policy Research, and other organizations that still fight for limited government.
Finally, Americans who lean right should give a standing ovation to several GOP members who defied the statist House leadership and attempted to defeat this bill. Rep. Ron Paul, M.D. of Texas educated his colleagues on this proposal's shortcomings through seminars in his office in the Cannon House Building (including one gathering I addressed).
Rep. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania encouraged members, especially newer ones, to oppose the Medicare bill. Late Friday night, Toomey, Mike Pence (R., Ind.) and John Shadegg (R., Ariz.) sequestered some two dozen of these congressmen at Hunan Dynasty, a Chinese restaurant on Capitol Hill, and later in the House gallery to shield them from the heavy-handed leadership. In this battle, Toomey's independence, tenacity and commitment to free-market principle demonstrated once again why he deserves to replace faux-Republican Arlen Specter as the Keystone State's United States senator.
The 25 members who withstood tremendous pressure and stood with America's taxpayers deserve individual recognition. They are identified below. Interestingly, many are freshmen and sophomores. This underscores the fact that lengthy tenure in Washington too often transforms conservatives into free-spending socialists.
The Senate is considering H.R. 1 and is expected to vote on it today, unless Senator Ted Kennedy's filibuster succeeds. As massive as this bill is, it still is not fat enough to impress the Massachusetts Democrat and many of his party colleagues. Americans who believe in limited government should call their senators at 202-224-3121. Ask them not to repeat the House's needless, profligate, abusive error.
HONOR ROLLThese 25 GOP representatives deserve the applause of free-marketeers for courageously defying the Republican House leadership and voting against the Medicare "reform" measure early Saturday morning:
Todd Akin of Missouri
Deroy Murdock is a columnist with the Scripps Howard News Service.