Politics & Government

As Rules Committee member, Cardoza at center of health care battle

WASHINGTON — Rep. Dennis Cardoza is caught in the middle of the controversial endgame for health care legislation.

As early as Wednesday, the Merced Democrat and others on the quietly powerful House Rules Committee will essentially construct the bill. Equally important, the 13-member panel will craft voting procedures that could have profound political consequences in November.

"We have to cobble together the bill," Cardoza said Tuesday, adding that "it's got to be a whole package."

The Rules Committee will show its clout, in particular, when it declares how health care voting will occur. This will be more dramatic than a simple reading of Robert's Rules of Order.

One potential procedure, uncommon but not unheard of, would enable House members to sidestep voting on a politically unpopular Senate bill.

Democrats insist this special procedure is no big deal. Republicans demean it as the "the Slaughter Solution," after the committee's chair, Rep. Louise Slaughter of New York. They say it's an abuse of power that will haunt Democrats.

"The process is adding insult to injury," said Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia. "If anybody is seen as being part of this dishonest mischief, that fuels voter anger."

Capitol Hill's quintessential insider's club, the House Rules Committee usually works discreetly, in a compact room with no cameras present. Party leaders appoint members directly, and expect loyalty in return.

Since June, for instance, Cardoza has voted with other committee Democrats 142 times and with committee Republicans six times. Cardoza's dissents were primarily on failed efforts to allow amendments concerning California water deliveries.

Committee membership also hath its privileges, and Cardoza stresses his ability to influence colleagues behind the scenes. In November, for instance, Cardoza quietly amended a firefighter grant program to benefit the San Joaquin Valley and other areas with high unemployment.

Usually, the Rules Committee simply decides how long debate lasts and which amendments, if any, are allowed. Traditionally, the party out of power complains that restrictive rules prohibit amendments.

In 2007 and 2008, the Democratic-controlled committee imposed closed or restrictive rules 88 percent of the time, a Brookings Institution study found. This was comparable to what Republicans had done in 2005 and 2006, but was nearly twice the level of closed or restrictive rules a decade ago.

"As happens all too often under the Democratic majority, this bill will be closed rather than open, and members will be shut out of the process," Rep. David Dreier, R-San Dimas, said during a debate earlier this year.

The committee's senior Republican, Dreier wants the panel's health care bill deliberations televised. They rarely have been, including during Dreier's own chairmanship when Republicans controlled the House.

Democrats defend the legislative rules they set, with House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland emphasizing last year that it is the majority party's "responsibility to ensure that the (legislation) is completed."

The health care package and its associated parliamentary procedures could be more momentous than most.

The Rules Committee must pull together a several-thousand-page bill from the work done by congressional negotiators and committees. The committee will also determine how voting takes place. This gets tricky.

Democratic leaders want to revise the Senate bill with a separate filibuster-proof "reconciliation" bill that removes sweetheart provisions like special funding for Nebraska.

But Democratic leaders also want to protect members from casting a vote for the unpopular Senate bill, even if it's revised later. The "Slaughter Solution," more blandly called "deeming" by Democrats, would slide past this. House Democrats would "deem" the Senate bill passed once they approve the rule for debating the revisions in the "reconciliation" bill.

Lawmakers have previously used the maneuver to avoid going on record as approving unpopular measures, such as increasing the national debt limit.

"Parliamentary procedure," Cardoza said, "is designed to make sure the majority is able to conduct its business."