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House Republicans’ Constitutional Ignorance

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 28: U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) (2nd L) speaks as Tea Party Patriots national coordinator Jenny Beth Martin (L) listens on during a rally in front of the U.S. Supreme Court March 28, 2012 in Washington, DC. Today is the last of three day the high court set to hear arguments over the oral arguments on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Chris WeigantPolitical Writer and Blogger at

The Tea Party Republicans in the House of Representatives are supposed to — according to their own statements — absolutely revere the United States Constitution. They even opened their current congressional session by reading the whole text of the document aloud (or, at least, the non-embarrassing parts of it). So it’s a little surprising that they appear not to understand one of the bedrock ideas enshrined within the Constitution — how a bill becomes a law. House Republican leaders have announced they’ll be voting on a bill this Friday (charmingly entitled the “Government Shutdown Prevention Act”). This bill reportedly contains a piece of legislative fantasy within it — that the House of Representatives can declare something to be the “law of the land” without any input or action from either the Senate or President Obama.

From the Washington Post blog which brought this to my attention:

As negotiations on funding the federal government continue in fits and starts ahead of an April 8 deadline, House Republican leaders on Wednesday announced that they plan to pressure the Senate by voting Friday on a measure that they have termed the “Government Shutdown Prevention Act.”

“What this bill says is it reiterates again the deadline, and that the Senate should act before the deadline, and that’s what the American people are expecting,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said Wednesday morning at a news conference with other House Republican leaders. “The bill then says if the Senate does not act, then H.R. 1 [the House-passed bill that cuts $61 billion] will be the law of the land. In addition to that, it says that if all else fails, and the Senate brings about a shutdown, then members should not get their pay.”

While that bit about cutting off congressional paychecks is something virtually everyone can support, the rest of it is patent nonsense. The idea of a “Government Shutdown Prevention Act” is actually part of the official Republican Party platform (since at least 2008), but that doesn’t mean it gets some sort of free pass on its way to becoming law. Because we have rules for how this is supposed to happen, outside of the Fantasyland which Republicans appear to be residing in these days. Let’s review this process, shall we?

Here is the relevant text, from the Constitution’s Article I, Section 7:

Every bill which shall have passed the House of Representatives and the Senate, shall, before it become a law, be presented to the President of the United States…

Since this is apparently too vague for House Republicans, allow me to simplify things even further. Here is the process a bill must take to become law:

(1.) Bill passes House.
(2.) The exact same bill passes Senate.
(3.) Bill is signed by the president.
(4.) Bill becomes law.

There is an alternate method, of course. It goes as follows:

(1.) Bill passes House.
(2.) The exact same bill passes Senate.
(3.) Bill is vetoed by the president.
(4.) Bill passes House with two-thirds majority.
(5.) Bill passes Senate with two-thirds majority.
(6.) Bill becomes law, without the president’s signature.

However, the Republicans in the House — who seem to be stealing the logic of the Underpants Gnomes from South Park — have come up with their own novel interpretation of the process:

(1.) Bill passes House.
(2.) ?
(3.) Bill becomes law.

This is the sheerest of nonsense, of course. If it weren’t so transparently silly, it’d be properly called a “constitutional crisis,” or perhaps even a “coup attempt.” But the silliness of pretending that there is some sort of magical shortcut a bill can take to become law when only one house of Congress has passed it is so painfully obvious that the only response such an action deserves is a hearty belly laugh.

The Republicans are in serious disarray over the budget negotiations. The Washington Post is also reporting today that the Republican leadership is exploring passing budget bills by jettisoning their Tea Party members and reaching out to Blue Dog Democrats. The Tea Party Republicans are in no mood to utter the word “compromise” in any way, shape, or form — and some of them are actually relishing the prospect of a government shutdown. These House Republicans apparently have forgotten what happened the last time this took place, which isn’t too surprising when you consider that one of the loudest voices calling for a shutdown is none other than the architect of the previous impasse, Newt Gingrich himself.

But Newt isn’t alone. In fact, there is a Tea Party rally scheduled for tomorrow on Capitol Hill. The Tea Party rank and file are going to turn out a crowd in order to stiffen the backbone of the Tea Party Republicans they elected to the House. And the Tea Party voters aren’t interested in passing any sort of compromise with Democrats, President Obama, the Senate, or even the House Republican leadership. They want even more drastic action, and most definitely not any sort of “appeasement” or backing down. A government shutdown would be just dandy with them.

The Republican leadership is caught between a rock and hard place. They are terrified of the Republican primary election power the Tea Partiers represent, but they also are the ones who remember the blame laid on Republicans after Newt’s government shutdown. Republican leaders know full well that their party will suffer politically if some sort of compromise can’t be reached before next Friday. But, at the same time, they want to appear as fire-breathing as possible to the Tea Partiers.

There are all sorts of grandstanding moves and red-meat rhetoric Republicans have available to them in order to thread this needle with their base voters. But, unfortunately for them (and fortunately for the rest of us), simply declaring a bill that has only passed the House as “the law of the land” is not a valid route that is open to them. The Constitution allows dozens of ways a bill can be derailed on its way to becoming law — parliamentary maneuvers, arcane rules, presidential vetoes, etc. — but it offers no possible way for a bill to magically become a law just because one house “says so.” There simply is no “I’m Holding My Breath Until I Turn Blue” clause in the Constitution.

You’d think that Republicans would be aware of this. After all, it seems every single one of them carries around a copy of the Constitution’s text in their pocket these days. Perhaps they should take it out and read it more often. Or perhaps Democrats should make a very vocal push to get the “I’m Just A Bill” video (from the Schoolhouse Rock era) back on the public airwaves. It certainly couldn’t hurt to try.

Chris Weigant blogs at:

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant
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About tenthltr2u (1063 Articles)
A child of the 60's I often feel out of place in the world as it exist today. Too much excess, too much materialism, too few people who genuinely care or give a damn. It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye. Antoine de Saint-Exupery

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