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Article I, Section 5 of the Constitution states that “a majority of each shall constitute a quorum to do business,” but if you were to tune into C-SPAN during the first day or two of a weekly session in the House, you will likely see an almost-empty chamber, with only a handful of members from both parties debating or otherwise discussing pending legislative business. Although a quorum of members isn’t present, legislation is frequently passed by a voice vote.
This means that if there is no explicit request for a recorded vote, the legislation passes automatically. Alternatively, a recorded vote means that each member’s position on the issue at hand would be recorded, whether they vote for or against, vote present, or do not vote. There is no member accountability in voice votes, which is why recorded votes (especially on substantial issues) are incredibly important to transparency and to holding members to their word.
Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, is highlighting the problems in the House’s process by forcing roll call votes on amendments to the 667-page, $954.6 billion spending bill that’s on the House floor this week. The bill is the first in a series of large appropriations bills slated for consideration in June.
This is not the first time that a member has slowed down proceedings on the House floor by asking for a roll call vote, which is a member’s right under the rules of the chamber.
In December 2018, after House Republican leadership blocked consideration of the Yemen War Powers Resolution, Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., forced roll call votes on every bill that came to the floor. The tactic didn’t win Massie any friends, but he was making a point about the problems with the process. At the time, Republicans were in control of the House. Control of the chamber may have changed hands, but the process remains unchanged.
Recently, Roy objected to the passage of a $19.1 billion supplemental spending bill, in part, because the House had technically gone into a weeklong recess. “I am here today primarily because if I do not object,” said Roy, “Congress will have passed into law a bill that spends $19 billion of taxpayer money without members of Congress being present here in our Nation's Capital to vote on it.”
Massie and Rep. John Rose, R-Tenn., objected to the same spending bill on different occasions, forcing a roll call vote, rather than a voice vote, when the House returned. As Massie said when he objected to the passage of the supplemental spending bill, “If the speaker of this House felt that this was must-pass legislation, the speaker of this House should have called for a vote on this bill before sending every member of Congress on recess for 10 days.”
Granted, the House was in recess at the time, but voice votes are routine even while the House is in session. The budget deficit for the current fiscal year, which ends in September, is projected to be around $900 billion, possibly more. Still, the House passed several bills by voice votes that have budgetary affects. The Veterans' Compensation Cost-of-Living Adjustment Act, for example, has a budgetary impact of $1.5 billion, according to the Congressional Budget Office, but it was voice voted out of the House. Another example of a bill voice voted out is the COAST Research Act, which has a budgetary impact of $253 million.
These bills, and others like them, would likely have passed by overwhelming margins if there were roll call votes. Given we’re $22 trillion in debt, it is absolutely reasonable and necessary to ensure that legislation and amendments, especially those with budgetary impacts, only are passed if members actually vote to pass them. There is already little accountability in how federal dollars are spent even when the spending is voted on. Without votes, there is even less.
We need to be demanding more of members of Congress, who too often like to take the easy way out and prefer to not do the jobs they were elected to do: representing the interests of their constituents. Requesting recorded votes instead of letting bills and amendments pass by voice vote is one of the most effective ways to ensure that members have to do their jobs, even if they don’t want to.
Roy is also forcing members to take roll call votes on even uncontroversial amendments and legislation. The freshman Texas Republican, with the backing of the House Freedom Caucus, will continue to force as many roll call votes as possible until Congress addresses immigration issues like border security and the Flores settlement. Although immigration is part of the theme, Roy is continuing to make a point about the legislative process in the House, which, in fact, is why the House Freedom Caucus was formed.
Forcing floor votes may be an inconvenience to some House members who would rather be at a cocktail party or raising money from K Street, but the process is broken, and more members should use the rules to their favor to highlight these problems in the House. It doesn’t matter which party is in charge. Congress is broken, and nothing will change until members begin showing it for the sham that it is.