There is more to dilatory motions than people think

Wednesday’s first Judiciary Committee in the House’s impeachment inquiry highlights the various ways in which legislators use dilatory motions to slow the chamber’s decision-making process.

At the impeachment hearing, Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-NY, only made it four seconds into his opening remarks before he was interrupted by the minority with a procedural motion (the video at the link above starts at the 41:40 mark).

Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wisc., reserved his right to object in order to furnish his demands for a minority-day hearing to be held within the Judiciary Committee prior to any formal votes on potential articles of impeachment. After submitting his request for the hearing, Sensenbrenner withdrew his reservation.

In response, Chairman Nadler brushed off Sensenbrenner’s maneuvering, remarking that committee members would confer and rule on his request at a later date.

The minority’s motion delayed the committee’s proceedings, but only for a few seconds. Nevertheless, the procedural maneuver signaled, unsurprisingly, that Republicans would likely offer numerous procedural, or dilatory, motions to gum up the works during the hearing.

By the end of the hearing, which lasted more than eight hours, Republicans had forced three roll call votes simply by offering motions to postpone the hearing. In each case, Democrats moved to table, or kill, the Republican bid to postpone the hearing. Committee Republicans demanded a roll call votes (i.e., a vote where the rules require the committee’s clerk to call the name of each member on the panel and record his or her response as either an aye or a no).

While this process does not at first appear to be a big deal, roll call votes nevertheless consume a lot of time. This is because every member must be asked to record his or her vote. In this case, the Judiciary Committee has 41 members. And the delay associated with asking each of them “aye or no” on three separate roll call votes is noticeable to all, members, media, and watchers alike.

This raises the question: Why do members offer dilatory motions, especially when they are in the minority and thus expect to lose the subsequent vote?

The most straightforward answer, and the one most often cited by scholars and journalists, is that the votes delay the committee’s proceedings. As noted, roll call votes take time. Such votes force members to be present, in the room, so that they can signal aye or no when the clerk calls their name. By extension, votes associated with dilatory motions disrupt committee business and throw off witnesses or members’ lines of questioning.

At this week’s Judiciary Committee hearing, Republicans on the panel appear to have expected that they could fluster Chairman Nadler by making dilatory motions. This is because Nadler had a famously hard time leading proceedings during the Mueller probe, especially with witness Corey Lewandowski. (This is one reason why Speaker Nancy Pelos, D-Calif., chose the Intelligence Committee its Chairman, Adam Schiff, D-Calif., to lead the first public impeachment hearings instead of the Judiciary Committee.)

Another reason why members offer dilatory motions is that they bore the audience. This is particularly relevant in an impeachment context when viewers are watching the proceedings closely. At this stage of the impeachment process, Democrats are trying to increase support for their case against President Trump. To do so, they need eyeballs on TVs as they make their case. Every time a viewer changes the channel, and especially if a cable network leaves their live hearing coverage, it is a win for Republicans. Dilatory motions, because they take time, make for bad television. Such votes will not be shown on the edited version later in the evening. And they are not fun to watch in person. Trust me.

Finally, Republicans were primed to force roll call votes for another vital reason: they demonstrate party unity. Democrats are doing everything possible to try and get one, two, or more Republicans to join them on anything impeachment-related. These procedural votes signal to Democrats, President Trump, and the American people that Republicans are sticking together when it comes to impeachment. Relatedly, these votes force those few Republicans who may be privately on the fence about impeachment to continue to show their allegiance. By forcing a party-line vote, the Republicans keep their potential wanderers (if there are any to begin with) continuously showing allegiance to the party position. By making them vote with their team on even seemingly trivial matters, they are, even subconsciously, making it harder for them to defect later on.

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Topics: Legislative Procedure