Monday, September 21, 2009

Health Care Q&A

The invaluable Judge Smails passes this along this primer:
Question #1: What the hell is a "markup"?

It's a formal meeting of the committee to consider a bill, operating much like the House or Senate floor, except only Members of the committee participate. Legislation (in this case the Baucus plan) is introduced, Members can offer amendments, and ultimately the committee will take a vote whether to report the bill out of committee or not. It's the basic formal mechanims of committee work.

Question #2: What is "the Chairman's mark"?

It's the first draft of the bill, and the version which the committee starts with in the markup. In this case, Baucus' staff will have prepared the mark. It is a massive advantage to be the chairman and introduce the mark, since there are enormous first-mover advantages in legislation drafting --- since you get to structurally arrange the bill, and any changes to the bill (in or out) will be subject to filibuster on the floor (and psuedo-filibuster in committee).

Question #3: How do amendments work in committee? I heard there are 500+ amendments for the Baucus bill?

Much the same as on the floor of the Senate. Without unanimous consent, it is relatively wide-open (with exceptions, see below). Anyone can offer any amendment at any time. Amendments are allowed in two degrees. The Finance committee does not have any specific rule requiring first-degree amendments to be pre-printed; the 500+ printed amendments were either given priority (to encourage pre-printing) or the subject of a UC agreement (I haven't been able to figure out which). In general, however, you can write an amendment on a napkin during the markup and get it considered. And that is always true of second-degree amendments.

Question #4: Are the amendments debatable like on the Senate floor? Does this mean that you can have a committee filibuster?

Yes and no. The basic rules of the Senate apply in committee, so all amendments are debatable. However, the Senate also empowers committees to make further rules governing their procedures. In the case of the Finance committee, there is a committee rule that the Chairman can make an non-debatable motion to end debate on any amendment, with an up/down vote on the amendment afterward. So effectively, the chairman and a majority can shut off debate on any amendment. As with the Senate floor, unanimous consent agreements can also be struck in committee, allowing for House-style structure to debate (with time limits, etc.). And, as always, motions to table amendments are also in order, allowing amendments to be killed without debate.

Question #5: So should we expect filibusters or other bad-faith action?

Not really. A straight up amendment filibuster in committee has to be conducted the old-fashioned way, by standing there and talking. It's not possible to dual-track a markup like you can on the floor, so there isn't an informal "hold" system available. Of course, you can still filibuster-by-amendment if you offer a gazillion amendments, but that's somewhat rare too. Most amendments are sincere. It is likely that the 500+ amendments are almost all genuine. Of course, some may be strategic --- putting in poision pills, etc. --- but even those are in the realm of "things the sponsor hopes are actually adopted," rather than simply debating devices. Watching something get filibustered in committee is not the best image to be showing the world, so it's tough politically --- it shuts-out the other 76 Senators who would like to bloviate, and it reminds too many people in the press of the bottling up of civil rights bills. And a markup of this size takes long enough as is.

Question #6: So how long will the markup take?

Probably a long time, but there are no guarantees either way. The Senators could come to a UC agreement 5 minutes into the markup to table all amendments and report the bill to the floor, but that is unlikely. Assuming they don't actually have debate on 500+ amendments (by coming to some sort of UC time agreement or tabling amendments en masse), it probably will go somewhere between days and weeks.

Question #7: Is it guaranteed that a bill gets reported out?

No. But it's highly likely. When bills die in committee, they almost always die from inaction, not from failed markups. It's possible that the Baucus bill could be maneuvered in such a way as to have the GOP and the progressives defeat Baucus and some conservatie dems in a committee vote, but very unlikely, since the progressives would almost certainly see the politics of that as bad, and choose to just hold their nose and report the bill out. It's also not nearly as important to get the bill out of committee in the Senate as compared to the House. A lost markup in the House would almost certainly destroy the bill's possibility on the floor. In the Seante, there are plenty of ways around a committee, although the politics of bypassing one can get very dicey.