MyDD Interview with Louise Slaughter, House Rules Committee Chair
by Jonathan Singer, Mon Jun 25, 2007 at 09:03:34 AM EDT
As youmay have noticed, I'm someone who is fairly interested in the rules by which the House of Representatives goes about its business. This interest stems at least in part from Republican claims, which have been picked up by some in the media, that the Democrats are not following through with their promise to run a more open House -- even though the Democrats are clearly running a more open House than the Republicans did in recent Congresses. For this reason, I jumped at the opportunity last week to talk about rules with the source on the subject, House Rules Committee chair Louise Slaughter.
On the afternoon of Monday, June 18, 2007, I had the opportunity to sit down with the New York Democrat to talk rules, touching on a number of the most pressing issues facing the House today, including the war in Iraq. You can listen to the interview in the player below, download the audio as a very large .mp3 here or read the rush transcript below.
Jonathan Singer: Let's talk about rules. I like talking about rules.
Louise Slaughter: Most people don't.
Singer: I actually find it interesting. I'm one of the few. So in 1910 there was the rebellion that separated the Speaker from the Rules Committee.
Singer: And there really was more separation. Do you think today that revolution is still ongoing?
Singer: Do you feel that you have the power, if you strongly disagree with the Speaker, to go against her on a rule?
Slaughter: Not without talking with her, but absolutely. There have been a couple of instances where, one I think we were doing the rules on the floor last year and Nancy was coming down and I said, "We've got to do away with these corporate jets. We can't carry that. We've got to cut out flights on corporate jets." She says, "It's gone."
She's probably the best politician I've seen in my entire life. We were elected about the same time. She came in about six or eight months after I did. Of course she fulfilled Sala Burton's term.
But, no, Nancy's not only very approachable, but she's in control of the House. There's no question about that. But I think she respects me enough - I know she does. She's put me on the leadership committee and so I'm in on every discussion that they have.
Singer: Let's talk about the number of open rules. The Politico ran a piece towards the beginning of the year saying that the Democrats had given up on their promise to run an open House.
Slaughter: Wasn't that a little early?
Singer: I thought so.
Slaughter: We'd been here about three months, I think, at the time.
Singer: And you had already had as many, if not more open rules than the Republicans had allowed.
Slaughter: I think the problem, Jonathan, that when we did the 6 in'06, that was all done under closed rules because we were the only committee that was constituted at that time. So I couldn't have things coming through committees and have open rules, so it was all done on the simple direction that we would just close those rules to get the business of the House done, which is ultimately my job. I need to move the agenda forward.
Remember, as we were discussing that, all of us realized that there wasn't anything in there that we hadn't tried to pass under the Republicans that we either had no chance to ever bring up or we knew exactly where they stood. For example, stem cells. We knew they were never going to touch that. They didn't believe in that. So we thought that since we had been elected to do things just like that one, a good example, that we had better get at it and make that record exactly what we wanted to do. Raising the minimum wage, we had tried for years to do it. That was terribly important to us. Doing away with the corporate jet travel, that was terribly important, particularly to me. I was always disturbed by the fact that members of Congress could be on jets that belong to someone and give them an hour or two of their time. Didn't ever seem quite right to me if ordinary people didn't have that same access - and of course they wouldn't.
Singer: Now in terms of running an open House, I think there's an idea that there was a period at which the House was so open that every rule was open.
Slaughter: I sure doubt it.
Singer: That's probably never been the case.
Slaughter: Heaven's no. The Rules Committee has always been contentious. We never said every rule coming out of here was going to be open. It would be foolish for us to say that. And obviously we couldn't have every rule open when we were the only committee that had been constituted.
So no. We certainly have been more open. I think we've given far more amendments to Republicans than I recall having when I was in the minority.
Singer: Appropriations bills have traditionally been brought up under open rules.
Slaughter: And I'm not even sure how far back that tradition goes, frankly.
Singer: But Republicans have certainly, we could say, been using that opportunity. Do you foresee the possibility of having to have preprinting rules and things like that instituted to slow down their moves to obstruct?
Slaughter: Last week what happened on Homeland Security was really a sorry spectacle to me. I couldn't believe the kinds of amendments that came up, the ones on puppet shows, on Louis Vuitton purses. We were talking about Homeland Security. We were talking about what we can do to secure our borders, which is probably one of the biggest issues with constituents in my district. I mean they're furious over the immigration bill because they think the first thing we need to do is make sure illegals are not coming into the country. And I agree with that. We were making great strides towards doing that in Homeland Security. They dragged it out for three days. And then the business over whether we can have unanimous consent after it had been agreed. It was really a distressing time for us.
There was talk from time to time that we would go up to Rules, but I don't think anybody was really serious about it.
Singer: It was more of a threat?
Slaughter: I think it was more frustration. We were trying to do it. We were trying to do it openly. But it turned into a farce in many ways. We take running the government much more seriously than that.
Singer: So where do you see the balance? For instance, some people felt that on the last Iraq appropriations, the supplemental, they felt that the rules shouldn't have passed. They felt that it should have been shut down in the Rules Committee even if that wouldn't have stopped the bill ultimately. Where do you think that the right balance is between running an open House and running one that can get things done?
Slaughter: I'm very strong on the notion that things should be put on the floor for debate regardless of my personal feelings. If it has enough votes on the Rules Committee to go to the floor, it should do it. I think all of us, including Nancy Pelosi... I voted against it. I really am very disappointed we've not been able to get further with the war, but I certainly understand it being here. We simply don't have the votes. I believe that's going to change.
Of course now we've got the process that we see the entire Middle East, practically, in flames - Lebanon, Palestine in the internal conflict with Hamas. It's very serious times for us to be doing this. And we can't spend three or four days... The one person last week - and I'm still a little sore from it - had 60 amendments. And as you looked at them it was obvious that they were strange.
Singer: Is there a feeling that there can be a quasi-open rule, let's call it, or a semi-open rule that allows a number of amendments so that Republicans get their votes but at the same time the Democrats can still govern - it's not a tyranny of the minority?
Slaughter: I have to say this. I've been through this for years. All the time that I've been in Congress, when we would get all of these delaying tactics and everything would be held up, inevitably people from that side of the aisle would come over to ours and beg for relief. So it's not a unanimous decision on the part of either party, I think, to slow down the House. We started even hearing members of the Republican Party say at the end on Thursday, people are calling me [to say] that they need to catch a plane after we'd been three days on this bill. So I must say that whoever determines the strategy on the floor doesn't always have the support of all the members. That needs to be said, I think.
Singer: Do you think that the Democrats will be able to pass all appropriations bills, which I think would be the first time since 1994, the last time the Democrats were in power?
Slaughter: Before the first of August?
Singer: Get them all done. The Republicans were never able to do that.
Slaughter: We would like to do that. We have done that once in the past. I remember doing it with Jim Wright. We'll see. We'll try. According to what I'm reading, too, Senator Reid is undergoing a lot of the same slowdown. A number of committee chairs have told me the same thing in their committees, they're finding it very difficult because of the excess number of votes being called or just delaying tactics. So I guess the game is really to try to stop progress.
Singer: Going back to the kind of essence of my first question, about bringing open rules, dealing with the leadership. The House passed a number of the less contentious bills, or at least less contentious within the Democratic caucus. We've seen high levels of unity.
Slaughter: They were contentious, but not with us. Speaking about the minimum wage, stem cells, cutting [the rates] on college loans in half.
Singer: Some of the bills that may be coming up subsequently will have less unanimity. The Iraq supplemental was perhaps a foreshadowing. But things like, for instance, the farm bill that in previous iterations, in 2002 the last time it came up, about half of Democrats voted for it but about half of Democrats voted against it, half of Republicans voted for it but half voted against it.
Slaughter: And that will happen. I don't think anybody's going to try to control how anybody wants to vote. I certainly am not.
Singer: So do you feel that there can be an openness to allow votes on things, even when it will split the Democratic caucus in half?
Slaughter: I'm willing to go out and try for 218 votes. We get them from one side or the other I'm happy as long as we can move the agenda, because that really is my responsibility.
Singer: Specifically I brought up the farm bill because it is something interesting to me, something that I have been doing work on. There is a substitute bill, a bipartisan bill -
Slaughter: Ron Kind.
Singer: Ron Kind and Jeff Flake.
Slaughter: I don't know what the upshot of that will be. It's interesting things there on farm subsidies. And I'm looking forward, myself, to see how that's going to work out.
Singer: So it's something that you are at least thinking of considering allowing a vote on?
Slaughter: I'm considering allowing a vote on anything. I don't have any preconceived notions here on what I plan to do on Rules. We do each one of them individually. And whatever needs to be done. Which does lead, obviously, to the question, how long would rules go on with what we went through last week.
Now let me make it clear that as a person who really believed in the rules of the House that we passed I think we did something revolutionary when we decided that every earmark had to be identified as to who put the earmark in and we had to also swear that we had no personal interest in it. I thought it was a great thing we did. Revolutionary. I think a strategic mistake was made not to have those earmarks in the Homeland Security, but I understand that when we're caught between the pressures of trying to get the appropriations bills done and what staff can do. And we just simply were not able to get that done in time for that bill as that bill was scheduled.
Singer: In terms of other tough rules, what's on the horizon in terms of the work of your committee?
Slaughter: There could be any number of them. But as I've said before, I'm going to be as fair as I can, I'm going to be as open as I can. But I'm going to move that agenda. And if I have to drag everybody across the goal line hanging on to my apron strings then I'll do it.
Singer: And for you, what's an agenda for you? What bills are of particular importance to you?
Slaughter: Every last one of them. They all have important issues in them.
Given my personal choice, if there was something I could do right now, I'd do something to stop this war. My heart is broken about this. The last time I visited a funeral home, I felt a little shaky going in there because everybody knows how I opposed the war and didn't know how the family would feel about me being there. But the soldier's sister - he died on his third tour - said, "Get them out." It was all she said to me. And I find that is usually the case with families. And I felt guilty that we hadn't done it in time. And it just eats away at all of us all of the time.
We see what's happening with the carnage with all of those young people. Terrible loss of life, and not only that but the people who at 18, 19 are maimed for life who aren't going to get any better. One of the things I was so proud of in this bill and in this supplemental was money that we put in, particularly in the MILCON Bill, money that we put in for veterans. We'd never seen anything like it. Over $6 billion. It had never happened before. And they didn't mess around with that one much. And I understand the President's going to sign it because I don't think he wants that on his head, either.
We've had all of these cases come back, brain trauma, that the VA can't cope with, and we've got to make sure that we get them to proper places that can. Give them every chance in the world that we can to live as normal life as possible.
But it's a terrible thing, about 30,000 of them.
Singer: I just want to ask one more question. You've had a pretty good netroots presence. With Murshed, with Adam, with Karl.
Slaughter: I love it. I have to tell you the truth. I have to credit what you did so much with helping us win the election. There was nobody else out there - there still isn't. I accused a famous writer that I absolutely love - I'm crazy about him - I said I think the media has been really afraid of the Bush administration. A lot of people have. For a pretty good reason. I am really distraught over the general who brought up Abu Ghraib and what they've done to him. The whole destroy the messenger. No matter who it is, or what it is or what it's about that seems to be the knee-jerk response from this White House. Go get `em.
Singer: Terrific. Well, thanks for you time. I really appreciate it.
Slaughter: You bet.
[THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.]