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Why Have D.C. Journos Done Such a Poor Job of Explaining 'Deem-and-Pass'?

If the Republicans are going to continue spreading the fiction that Congressional Democrats are playing fast and loose with procedural rules, then D.C. journalists at least have the obligation to fully explain those procedures to their readers and put them in the proper context.

The same kind of debate occurred over using the reconciliation process on the Senate side. Now conservatives are crying foul over a small procedural quirk that’s been called “deem-and-pass,” “the self-executing rule” or the “Slaughter Solution,” named after New York congresswoman and House Rules committee chair Louise Slaughter.

But the way that some journalists are describing it, you’d think the House Democrats were willing a bill into law by magic. “House may try to pass Senate health-care bill without voting on it,” blared a Washington Post headline. The Post’s only explanation of the tactic came from Nancy Pelosi, who said, "It's more insider and process-oriented than most people want to know.”

The Wall Street Journal editorial board went even further, beginning their editorial with a cutesy fairy tale setup:

We're not sure American schools teach civics any more, but once upon a time they taught that under the U.S. Constitution a bill had to pass both the House and Senate to become law. Until this week, that is, when Speaker Nancy Pelosi is moving to merely "deem" that the House has passed the Senate health-care bill and then send it to President Obama to sign anyway.

Even wonk-wunderkind Ezra Klein didn’t do the procedure justice, focusing more on the political implications and less on the procedure itself. Klein was content to describe the procedure as, “Rather than passing the Senate bill and then passing the fixes, the House will pass the fixes under a rule that says the House "deems" the Senate bill passed after the House passes the fixes.”

Okay, so here’s how the “deem-and-pass” procedure would actually work. The House Rules committee is often called the “traffic cop” of the House – controlling what bills come to the floor and how much debate is allowed on each one. On each bill, they pass what is called a “rule” – a resolution determining what kind of debate is allowed on each bill. The whole House must first pass the rule, then the underlying legislation. In the case of “deem-and-pass,” the vote on the rule would also have the effect of passing the Senate bill.

To be sure, this isn’t the most straightforward of parliamentary procedural processes to explain to the average American. At the same time, most of the news reports dealing with the procedure don’t even attempt to explain either the process itself or the context of its use. Very few of the news stories or editorials even mention the Rules committee’s complex role in shaping bills and managing votes.

If the GOP insists on having a debate over process instead of substance, Beltway scribes should at least inject a little more nuance and a lot more context in their reporting.

Byron Tau is a web intern at The New Republic.