Monday, August 13, 2007

Norman Ornstein has a column up in which he is very critical of both Republican and Democratic leadership in the House over the vote "meltdown" that occurred before the congressional recess--and suggests that much of the reporting of this issue has been misinformed. He offers this summary of voting procedure in the House:

First, some basics on rules and procedures on the House floor. Contrary to what many Republicans said, and many reporters wrote, there is no such thing as "gaveling the vote." The gavel, for purposes of finality, simply is irrelevant. Gavels get banged by presiding officers all the time, including during votes, to restore order or before an announcement. What matters is the announcement from the chairman. Even an announcement can change if new information comes in on a timely basis. The occupants of the chair often make premature announcements and then update them.

What about the voting screen? It is even more irrelevant than the gavel. Presiding officers are told before they take on the role to ignore the screens, which are not official or relevant information for a vote count by the chairman.

So what matters? The sheets compiled by tally clerks, who give them to the presiding officer with running counts; when the counts are complete--and they may be viewed as complete but then change as Members arrive two minutes late or signal that they are going to switch--the chairman announces the total. The final tally on a vote can come only when the chairman, using information from the tally clerks, reads a final vote and moves on to other business.

Thus the notion that at one moment frozen in time, when the gavel banged and the vote screen read 215-213, the vote was final--as if it were a basketball game that ended when the horn sounded and the final shot had not yet left the shooter's hand--simply is bogus. Standard practice for a 15-minute vote is to take an extra minute or two to let stragglers vote and switches to occur--but only for at most a handful of minutes to accommodate those on their way to vote or signaling a desire to change, not to cut them short or, at the other end, to prolong a vote so leaders can change the clear outcome.

He also cites some Republican actions from the past:
Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), who was one of former Majority Leader Tom DeLay's (R-Texas) major allies, said after the fiasco, "Never once in the majority did we ever try to steal a vote." Whoa, remember the three-hour vote on the Medicare prescription drug bill, during which an absolute majority of the House, 218, voted "nay," which was ignored by the chair and the majority and resulted in several rare rebukes by the ethics committee? Or the occasion in 1995, when Republican John Linder (Ga.) declared a vote over when several Democrats were openly and actively clamoring in the well to record their votes--a vote that was vacated by unanimous consent the next day after an uproar?