Monday, March 15, 2010

Is Deem and Pass Constitutional?


Ezra Klein reports that Speaker Nancy Pelosi hopes to avoid asking House Democrats to vote directly on the Senate health care reform bill; instead, she will incorporate the bill by reference in the House reconciliation bill, which will then be sent to the Senate:
Rather than passing the Senate bill and then passing the fixes, the House will pass the fixes under a rule that says the House "deems" the Senate bill passed after the House passes the fixes.

The virtue of this, for Pelosi's members, is that they don't actually vote on the Senate bill. They only vote on the reconciliation package. But their vote on the reconciliation package functions as a vote on the Senate bill. The difference is semantic, but the bottom line is this: When the House votes on the reconciliation fixes, the Senate bill is passed, even if the Senate hasn't voted on the reconciliation fixes, and even though the House never specifically voted on the Senate bill.

It's a circuitous strategy born of necessity. Pelosi doesn't have votes for the Senate bill without the reconciliation package. But the Senate parliamentarian said that the Senate bill must be signed into law before the reconciliation package can be signed into law. That removed Pelosi's favored option of passing the reconciliation fixes before passing the Senate bill. So now the House will vote on reconciliation explicitly and the Senate bill implicitly, which is politically easier, even though the effect is not any different than if Congress were to pass the Senate bill first and pass the reconciliation fixes after. This is all about plausible deniability for House members who don't want to vote for the Senate bill, although I doubt many voters will find the denials plausible.

Whether or not it provides plausible deniability, is it consistent with the Constitution? Stanford Law Professor (and former judge) Michael McConnell doesn't think so. The argument is simple: To satisfy Article I, section 7's requirement of bicameralism and presentment, both houses must pass the same bill for the President to sign. If they pass different bills, no law is created, even if the President signs both.

The practice of deeming legislation passed by a special rule is not new. Both Republicans and Democrats have used it, both for technical fixes and for substantial amendments to legislation. What is new here is that the House legislation involves relatively smaller fixes to a major bill that is "deemed" to be passed along with it.

Despite Judge McConnell's concerns, which are textually well founded, there is a way that "deem and pass" could be done constitutionally. There have to be two separate bills signed by the President: the first one is the original Senate bill, and the second one is the reconciliation bill. The House must pass the Senate bill and it must also pass the reconciliation bill. The House may do this on a single vote if the special rule that accompanies the reconciliation bill says that by passing the reconciliation bill the House agrees to pass the same text of the same bill that the Senate has passed. That is to say, the language of the special rule that accompanies the reconciliation bill must make the House take political responsibility for passing the same language as the Senate bill. The House must say that the House has consented to accept the text of the Senate bill as its own political act. At that point the President can sign the two bills, and it does not matter that the House has passed both through a special rule. Under Article I, section 5 of the Constitution, the House can determine its own rules for passing legislation. There are plenty of precedents for passing legislation by reference through a special rule.

I have not looked at the text of the reconciliation bill, so I don't know if the current language is sufficient to meet the test described above, but this is what would have to happen.

The structural constitutional reason for this requirement is that members of the House must not able to avoid political accountability for passing the same bill as the Senate. The point of bicameralism and presentment is that all three actors (House, Senate and President) must agree to the legislation, warts and all, so that all three can be held politically accountable for it. They cannot point fingers at the other actors and deny responsibility for the policy choices made. The House cannot say, "oh we didn't pass X; that was the Senate's decision." If the House doesn't accept the same language as its own, even if that language is then immediately changed in an accompanying bill, there is no law.

Speaker Pelosi is trying to give House members a way of saying they did not vote for the Senate bill, but my point is that however much she and they may be trying to do this rhetorically, she and they can't really do this politically and constitutionally. They have to take responsibility for what they are doing and the language of the bill has to say that they are taking responsibility. This is the point of Article I, section 7.

Deem and pass may make some members of the House feel better by providing a sort of fig leaf, but to be constitutional the process cannot rid them of political responsibility for passing the Senate bill. If it did, they would not have created a valid law. Nevertheless, if both the House and Senate pass a reconciliation bill, then both House and Senate also can take political responsibility for getting rid of undesirable features of the original Senate bill. They can then both take credit for fixing the flaws in the former bill. Politicians taking responsibility for acts of legislation is the way the constitutional process is supposed to work.