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  • Matthew Green

To delay or not to delay?

Updated: Apr 2, 2021

Democrats in Congress face a major challenge: how to legislate with exceedingly slim seat margins. If minority party Republicans vote as a unified bloc, the defection of just four House Democrats or a single Senate Democrat can defeat any bill or amendment. Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) has already exploited this fact, threatening to bring down the massive COVID-19 relief bill unless it was made more to his liking.

But as we have seen in recent weeks, the House GOP has a problem of its own: how to tame restless members of their ranks who would rather obstruct than let the chamber function. They have exploited COVID-related rules in the House that require lawmakers to vote in waves in order to limit the congregation of people in the chamber. As a result, a recorded vote can take 45 minutes or more to complete, three times its normal length.

Earlier this month, over a dozen bipartisan bills were pulled from the floor calendar after some Republicans threatened to force roll call votes on each one, which would have consumed ten hours of voting time. Meanwhile, Chip Roy (R-TX) and Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) have together made five motions to adjourn, privileged procedural motions that require a recorded vote. That’s as many as were offered in all of the previous (116th) Congress.

These tactics have annoyed Democrats, of course, but they have bothered Republicans too. Pointless recorded votes interrupt committee hearings and force lawmakers to reschedule or cancel meetings with constituents. Yet advocates for delaying tactics have been unrepentant, and when GOP leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) urged his colleagues to ease up, he faced pushback. “You’ve got to get in the way and try to slow things down as much as you possibly can,” insisted Andy Biggs (R-AZ).

This fracas within the Republican Party underscores an enduring dilemma that minority parties in legislatures struggle with. They can cooperate with the majority party to get things done, but at the risk of failing to differentiate themselves to voters. Alternatively, they can aggressively confront the governing party, but by doing so they may cut off avenues to shape policy and represent their constituents effectively.

In her book Insecure Majorities, Frances Lee argued that greater competition for control of Congress has given minority parties a strong incentive to pursue conflict over cooperation. This is perhaps truer now than it has been in decades. With a majority of seats nearly within their grasp, House Republicans are highly motivated to make life difficult for Democrats and improve their electoral brand.

As I have written elsewhere, however, minority parties care about more than just winning power; they also want to shape policy and protect their procedural rights. Dilatory tactics threaten both. Widely supported GOP-authored bills may be withdrawn from the floor to avoid time-wasting votes, and the majority party can retaliate by changing the chamber’s rules to take away the power of the minority to offer delaying motions.

This does not mean that minority parties should never obstruct legislative business. In my analysis of minority party motions to adjourn between 1993 and 2012 (along with a similar procedure, the motion to rise), I found that nearly 40% of the time, such motions were followed by outcomes that benefited the party, such as fairer rules, positive changes to bills, or a favorable shift in the legislative agenda. Even if delay doesn’t yield immediate results, it is a valuable outlet of frustration when the House minority has been badly abused by the governing party.

But delay for its own sake is not likely to help the minority achieve its policy goals, protect its powers, or relieve the bitterness of being out of power. Josh Huder put it best when he tweeted, “Unnecessary obstruction leads to two things: less influence and fewer minority rights.”

Dilatory tactics can even undermine the minority party’s goal of winning power if they are not uniformly supported by the party. If the minority is internally divided over strategy, efforts to implement that strategy not only are less likely to work but also imply that the party is ill-prepared to be given governing authority.

In the current Congress, Greene and her allies have done a poor job persuasively explaining their rationale to colleagues, and it shows. “There’s no reason to adjourn, and I’m not into taking votes just to slow down things,” said Tim Walberg (R-MI). “I don’t understand the strategy,” remarked a befuddled Jim Banks (R-IL), while David Joyce (R-OH) complained that “it’s a senseless thing.” As the number of Republicans voting with Democrats on motions to adjourn has grown steadily larger, Greene has stoked more internal strife, calling the 40 Republicans who wouldn’t support her last motion to adjourn “white flags of the Surrender Caucus.”

The vows of Harris and Greene to continue making dilatory motions notwithstanding, their campaign is likely to peter out, at least in the short run. Even Greene, who sits on no committees and appears to relish her reputation as a troublemaker, will find it hard to withstand pressure to lay off so lawmakers can get their work done and reporters will stop writing about a divided GOP. But the House Republican Party will still have to deal with same dilemma—cooperate or confront—that all minority parties do.

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