Floor Watchdogs

The Speaker’s Lobby: Floor Watchdogs

By: Chad Pergram, FOX News

13 October 2009

It’s long been the province of the minority party to assign a “watchdog” to the House floor.

When Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) shouted “You lie!” at President Obama during last month’s Joint Session of Congress, the entire country became the floor watchdog, as it viewed the speech coast-to-coast on TV in living rooms and bars.

In 1837, the House adopted a manual penned by Thomas Jefferson as the official rulebook governing procedure in the institution. Jefferson’s Manual clearly states that a member of the House cannot accuse the president of “lying” or being a “liar.”

Had Wilson accused a fellow lawmaker of the same transgression during a regular meeting of the House, it’s likely someone would have moved to “take down” Wilson’s words. That’s an effort to penalize a lawmaker when there’s an potential breach of decorum on the House floor.

Certainly, the same could be said for two recent instances involving Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL). First, Grayson declared that the GOP’s health care plan was “die quickly.” For an encore, Grayson told the House a few days later that he was sorry for the “holocaust” caused by those who have died because they don’t have health insurance.

Grayson did not violate a House rule as specific as the one Wilson broke. But certainly a Republican lawmaker could have moved to sanction Grayson by “taking down” his words.

But that didn’t happen. Instead, Republicans elected to go after Grayson in the press and YouTube.

Which possibly signals and interesting shift in House precedence.

For years, the minority party has assigned a lawmaker to patrol the floor, ready to pounce if the majority steps out of line. In the watchdog’s quiver is an arsenal of motions, demands for redundant votes and other procedural shenanigans. For the watchdog serves as a parliamentary pebble in the shoe of majority.

Republicans perfected this art in the early 1990s. Back then, Democrats tried the patience of the Republicans. So then-Minority Whip Newt Gingrich (R-GA) and former Rep. Bob Walker (R-PA) would spring into action and play havoc on the floor. They’d order a slate of votes on routine procedural matters. Such tactics can gum up the works and deeply frustrate the majority. But after all, that’s the role of the watchdog.

House Democrats were reeling when Republicans seized control of the House in 1995. While they didn’t officially appoint a floor watchdog to keep an eye on the GOP, former Rep. Harold Volkmer (D-MO) made the role his own.

First elected to Congress in 1976, Volkmer scored few headlines before 1995. A moderate Democrat from Hannibal, MO, Volkmer operated as an obscure backbencher who focused primarily on livestock and poultry issues.

But Volkmer enjoyed a meteoric rise to fame when he started policing Gingrich and his lieutenants on a host of parliamentary issues as the the Democrats’ floor cop.

Volkmer, who had a visceral dislike for Gingrich and then-House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-TX), would patrol the center aisle of the House chamber. He’d challenge whether the speeches of GOP lawmakers were in order. He’d move to adjourn. Even ask to “strike the enacting clause.” The “enacting clause” is the boilerplate language at the top of legislation which, if adopted and signed, gives the measure the force of law. In other words, if Volkmer successfully struck the enacting clause, the House could go on to approve a bill. But it would be stripped of any muscle.

Dispatched the minority after enjoying 18 years in the majority, Volkmer needed to feel relevant.

“There’s less responsibility. You do have more time on your hands… I get my work done at the office and come over to the floor,” he told Roll Call at the time.

Volkmer conceded to me years later that he viewed his role as an agent provocateur. He’d offer his offbeat motions just to keep the upstart majority on its toes. Volkmer likened it to playing basketball where one player antagonizes the other team with trash talk. The Missouri Democrat said he knew who the “hotheads” were on the other team and would try to goad them into drawing a technical foul.

A former member of the House Republican leadership team at the time told me that if he sniffed a note of gin on Volkmer’s breath as they entered the House chamber, he knew it was going to be a long night.

When Democrats won control of the House in 2006, there was much discussion as to who would seize the mantle as the Republican floor watchdog. I joked with Rep. Kenny Hulshof (R-MO) at the time that he should take on that role since he defeated Volkmer in 1996. But Hulshof was already focused on running for governor and retired in early 2009.

In 2007, Republicans launched sort of a tag-team approach to floor watching. In baseball, teams used to have their starting pitchers go deep into the game and then hand off to a reliever or two to finish. But baseball’s modern approach is “bullpen-by-committee.” That’s where five or six relievers could see action in any one game. That’s the tactic the GOP now uses, deploying its Floor Action Team.

The GOP started rotating groups of lawmakers to the floor to keep an eagle eye on the Democrats. Over the past few years, Reps. Louie Gohmert (R-TX), Phil Gingery (R-GA), Tom Price (R-GA), Lynn Westmoreland (R-GA) Patrick McHenry (R-NC), Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), John Campbell (R-CA) and several others have played major roles in bird-dogging House floor activity. 

But none have been as hyper-vigilant as their Republican predecessors Newt Gingrich and Bob Walker or Democratic-watchdog extraordinaire Harold Volkmer.

To wit: In October of 2007, the House debated a bill to widen coverage offered by the State Children’s Health Insurance Plan, or SCHIP. Rep. Pete Stark (D-CA) managed the debate for the Democrats. President Bush galled Stark in his opposition to bolster SCHIP. While arguing in favor of the plan, Stark thundered that Mr. Bush wouldn’t pay for SCHIP but allowed service members to fly to Iraq to “get their heads blown off for the president’s amusement.”

No Republicans challenged Stark’s incendiary allegation.

A few minutes later, Stark said something similar, but not nearly as provocative. At that point, Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX) leaped to his feet and demanded that Stark’s “words be taken down.”

In House parlance, “taking down words” is kind of like an indictment. A lawmaker may have broken the rules of the House. But they’re not sure. So everything comes to a screeching halt while the clerk goes back and “takes down” the potentially offending words. The parliamentarian then determines whether the words are in order or out of order. In the latter incident, Stark’s language was ruled to be in order. However, had they been ruled out of order, the House could have banned him from speaking on the floor for the rest of the day or he could have offered a mea culpa and withdrawn his speech.

But here’s the rub: it’s likely the House would have penalized Stark for the first remark about sending troops to Iraq to “get their heads blown off for the president’s amusement.” Yet in that instance, no one challenged Stark. And House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) later conceded that his party was slow to the switch.

Which brings us back to Joe Wilson and Alan Grayson.

The day after the Wilson episode, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said she was prepared to move against the South Carolina Republican had his disruption continued. And a week later, the House voted to officially disapprove of Wilson’s high-profile interruption.

Certainly, the House could have tried to discipline Grayson on the spot during both of this incidents. In fact, Reps. Jimmy Duncan (R-TN) and Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) immediately criticized Grayson on the floor. But neither moved to take down Grayson’s words. And no one did the same a few days later when he uttered the “holocaust” line.

On one hand, it could be argued that the minority is again slow to respond, just as Boehner admitted that Republicans were after Pete Stark’s remark. But as message strategy and technology changes, so does floor vigilance. In both of the Grayson cases, Republicans blasted out his speeches via email, Twitter and Facebook, excoriating what him for his remarks and parading it around for all to see.

Now the minority doesn’t need someone bird-dogging the floor in person. Today, the minority has teams of aides who either officially or unofficially track action on the floor, unseen from their offices or even via BlackBerry. The technology enables these staffers to then alert millions to a potential transgression, without going through the floor high jinks.

So this technological phenomenon creates a conundrum for the minority party, be it the Republicans or Democrats. In fact, they may ask “WWJD?” In this case, it’s not “What would Jesus do?” But “What would Jefferson do?” Will they decide to tweet and email about broaches of House decorum? Or will they instead turn to the procedures and customs that Thomas Jefferson laid out for the House nearly 200 years ago?

 -         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 refers to a long, ornate hallway behind the dais in the House chamber where lawmakers, aides and reporters often confer during votes.