The Political Mechanics of ACORN

The Speaker’s Lobby: The Political Mechanics of ACORN

By: Chad Pergram, FOX News

20 September 2009

“I was just as surprised as anyone.”

Those are the words of House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) Thursday night, hours after 172 Democrats teamed with all Republicans to approve an across-the-board federal ban on funding ACORN.

ACORN is the acronym for the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now. It’s a community organization that says its mission is to assist low and middle-income families with housing, health and voting issues. ACORN’s come under heavy fire for alleged voter fraud in the 2008 presidential election. Some of its employees are now under criminal indictment. And the heat’s intensified in recent days. Undercover videos are plastered all over the internet showing ACORN employees willing to help filmmakers James O’Keefe and Hannah Giles posing as a pimp and a prostitute as they seek aid to set up cathouses. The Census Bureau announced earlier this month it was severing its ties with ACORN. It’s believed ACORN has received $54 million dollars in federal assistance in the last 15 years.

A few days ago, the Senate overwhelmingly adopted an amendment authored by Sen. Mike Johanns (R-NE). Johanns specifically tailored his provision to prohibit ACORN from receiving federal transportation and housing dollars. But few anticipated what unfolded in the House Thursday afternoon on ACORN.

The House was wrestling with The Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act. The massive legislation pumps money into student loan programs and simplifies the sometimes daunting paperwork that accompany the loan application process. Debate and votes on amendments to the legislation wrapped up early Thursday afternoon. But just before final passage on most bills, the majority grants the minority a final bullet to fire in an effort to amend or potentially kill a bill. This is called a “Motion to Recommit,” or MTR for short. And Thursday’s MTR offers a unique glance into the internal mechanics of the House and the politics of ACORN.

In this particular instance, Republicans opted to bring to the floor what’s called a “Motion to Recommit With Instructions.” In other words, the House would have the opportunity to alter the bill. A successful vote for the MTR with instructions binds the committee that forged the bill to follow the guidance of the House. It’s important to note that motions to recommit must pertain to the substance of the legislation at hand. If not, the House can rule the MTR out of order.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) offered this particular motion to recommit with instructions. In short, he offered a measure titled the “Defund ACORN Act.” The motion simply stated that “no federal contract, grant, cooperative agreement, or any form of agreement may be awarded to or entered into with” ACORN. It added that the government may not tender any federal funds to ACORN.

For starters, Issa’s effort was broader than Johanns’ amendment in the Senate. Johanns’ provision just halted federal transportation and highway dollars from going to ACORN. But adoption of the motion to recommit could cancel out any funds ACORN receives from Washington.

And that’s where things got weird.

First, Republicans were dubious that Democrats would decide their MTR was in order. That’s because the bill deals with higher education and has nothing to do with ACORN. But Speaker Pro Tempore Rep. Jose Serrano (D-NY) didn’t rule Issa’s motion out of order. And then House Education Committee Chairman George Miller (D-CA) surprised his California colleague.

“ACORN gets no money under this bill,” Miller said. “I will support the gentlemen’s instruction. Vote for the motion to instruct. Vote for this bill on final passage.”

Most were stunned. First, Democrats passed on a chance to cut off Issa by ruling the motion out of order, even though it wasn’t germane to the bill. Republicans figured Serrano would rule against them and they would appeal his decision. Then Democrats would move to table or set aside Issa’s appeal. The House would then vote on the “motion to table the appeal of the ruling of the chair.” From a parliamentary perspective, that’s two steps removed from Issa’s initial request.

But that didn’t happen. And Miller even invited his Democratic colleagues to jump on Issa’s bandwagon.

During their nearly three years in the minority, Republicans have grown increasingly creative at crafting their motions to recommit. When written artfully, the GOP’s motions can put moderate and conservative Democrats in a jam by forcing them to take tough votes. The Republicans give vulnerable Democrats from right-leaning districts two options: either they can vote against their party, and potentially blow up a bill. Or, they can vote with their fellow Democrats. If they side with the Democrats, Republicans then have a documented vote which they can lord over these lawmakers in campaign commercials and tell voters that Representative so-and-so voted against such-and-such an issue. Or in this case, they voted against whacking ACORN.

But even John Boehner admitted later that he was stunned the Democrats allowed the ACORN issue to play out as it did.

Democrats then overwhelmingly came to the floor and joined Republicans in voting against funneling money to ACORN. The vote was 345 to 75 (with two lawmakers voting present). In the end, nearly as many Democrats (172) voted against ACORN as Republicans (173).

There are several ways to parse this vote. First, Miller’s decision to encourage a yes vote could be read as an effort to give endangered Democrats “cover” from GOP attacks that they voted against defunding ACORN. But Miller’s spokeswoman Rachel Racusen pointed out that “the ACORN measure did not impact the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act in any way. The important thing is the House was able to move quickly forward in voting to overwhelmingly pass legislation that puts the interests of students, families and taxpayers before lenders and banks.”

Later Miller said that he didn’t want the MTR to “derail” the bill.

“I was comfortable with giving members a vote on that issue and advancing the legislation,” Miller said.

Plus, even though the language of the effort would kill all government money for ACORN, the vote to accept Darrell Issa’s motion to recommit with instructions pertains exclusively to this bill. Thus, the vote was purely symbolic. Republicans could then trumpet that they successfully engineered a vote to defund ACORN. And Democrats could vote for it without much concern that what they did would have any true impact on ACORN.

There’s also another wrinkle here. FOX has learned that many Democrats came to the floor to vote, unfamiliar with Issa’s MTR. That’s typical, because the minority usually keeps its motion to recommit a secret. That way, it can spring the motion on the majority at the last moment and create chaos on the other side. But one House Democratic insider conceded that few Democrats read Issa’s three-page MTR. And many presumed it was similar to the narrow, Mike Johanns’ amendment in the Senate.

“They didn’t know it was a ban across the board,” said the source.

So much for asking lawmakers to read 1,000 page bills, let alone three-page motions. And it should be noted that few if any lawmakers from either side ever read the text of an MTR. They are simply coached on the floor by their party as to what the motion to recommit entails and advised how to vote.

There are now questions about the future of defunding ACORN. It’s significant that both the House and Senate are now on record to slash ACORN’s funding. Mike Johanns trotted out another amendment Thursday afternoon to curb federal dollars for ACORN from a bill funding  the Interior Department. His second effort even garnered more votes than the earlier ACORN amendment. Johanns served as President Bush Agriculture Secretary. He says once Congress awards money to a federal department or agency, it’s up to that cabinet or agency head to decide how to spend the money. Johanns believes that Congress needs to put an express ban on ACORN to give cabinet secretaries little leeway.

On one hand, it could be argued that there is now momentum in both the House and Senate to cut off ACORN. And the Issa and Johanns efforts would have to be resolved in conference committees because the House and Senate are tinkering with different pieces of legislation. In other words, the House approved a higher education bill that bans ACORN. The Senate has not. The House has okayed Transportation and Interior Department spending bills that don’t say anything about ACORN. But the Senate has now adopted two measures which prohibit ACORN money. So these bills have to be synched up at some point, with or without a cut to ACORN.

For his part, George Miller said on a conference call Thursday afternoon that the decision to defund ACORN would be “made somewhat above my pay grade.” The person above his pay grade, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) joined Miller on that call. But the speaker was silent as to how the House and Senate may resolve its differences over ACORN.

But John Boehner thought the writing was on the wall.

“I think we’ve seen a tipping point on ACORN,” Boehner said.

But ironically, the GOP’s motion to recommit could potentially backfire on them. Remember, the minority writes MTR’s to embarrass the majority. But by accepting the GOP motion to recommit, Democrats may have reversed the roles and instead put Republicans in a bit of a fix. Much to their surprise, the GOP got its way on Issa’s motion to recommit with instructions. That breathed life into the anti-ACORN provision. But it’s now attached to the student loan package. The House approved the legislation 253 to 171. And a scant six Republicans joined 247 Democrats in voting aye on that bill. So if Republicans want to slash ACORN’s money, some would argue they may have to support that bill.

Meantime, Republicans heaped criticism on the underlying legislation. Rep. John Carter (R-TX) argued that this plan would “destroy the system.” And Rep. John Kline (R-MN) pointed to the bill as another effort to expand “the size and scope of the federal government.”

So on Friday afternoon, John Boehner called on Nancy Pelosi to schedule a vote on his “stand-alone” bill to defund ACORN.

But Thursday’s House vote means she doesn’t have to. Issa’s motion to recommit gave the speaker political cover. Now she can reject Boehner’s requests and say the House already voted against ACORN. And argue that a second vote is unnecessary.

-         Chad Pergram covers Congress for FOX News. He’s won an Edward R. Murrow Award and the Joan Barone Award for his reporting on Capitol Hill.

-         The Speaker’s Lobby is long, ornate hallway in the Capitol where lawmakers, aides and reporters often congregate during votes on the House floor.