Does the “Slaughter Solution” Comply with the Constitution’s Lawmaking Requirements?

The latest procedural furor in the healthcare reform debate has been over something dubbed the “Slaughter Solution,” so-named after the Chair of the House Rules Committee.  To understand this procedure, one must recall that the Democratic leadership intends for the House to pass two separate bills.  The first is the bill that previously passed the Senate in December.  The second is the “reconciliation fix” bill, which is a new bill that will embody the changes to the Senate bill agreed upon by the leadership.

Once passed by the House, the Senate bill would go to the President and presumably become law.  The reconciliation fix, on the other hand, would still need to be passed by the Senate before it can become law.  (The hope is that the reconciliation fix can be passed by the Senate under reconciliation procedures, which will enable it to avoid a filibuster).  It is possible that only the Senate bill would ultimately become law (theoretically, although not practically, it is also possible that the President could veto the Senate bill, so that neither bill, or only the reconciliation fix, would ultimately become law).

The House could take up and pass the Senate and reconciliation fix bills separately.  For reasons that are somewhat unclear (but apparently relate to the unwillingness of House Members to take a specific vote in favor of the Senate bill), however, the House is reluctant to proceed in this manner.  The Slaughter Solution is designed to allow the House instead to pass both bills in a single vote.  To achieve this goal, the House would first vote to approve a rule that states that passage of the reconciliation fix will be “deemed” to also represent passage of the Senate bill.  The House would then vote to pass the reconciliation fix and, voila, two bills for the price of one.

There is a long, but interesting, thread at the Volokh Conspiracy regarding potential constitutional problems with the Slaughter Solution.  Professor (and former judge) Michael McConnell has also weighed in with his view that the Slaughter Solution is unconstitutional.

There are basically two objections to the Slaughter Solution.  The first is simply to the concept that the House would “deem” a bill to be passed without taking a vote on the bill itself.  It is argued that the Constitution implicitly requires that every bill be actually passed by the House (and Senate) with a vote that is, or could be, separately recorded (Article I, section 5, cl. 3 requires that the “yeas and nays” on “any question” be entered in the Journal if one fifth of either House so request).  Bills that are merely “deemed” passed, therefore, cannot become law.

Although this objection has some plausibility, it also seems artificial, in that there is arguably no substantive difference between voting to pass a bill and voting to pass a rule that “deems” the bill to be passed.  Thus, assuming that there is a constitutional violation, it would seem to be de minimis (and thus no different than other congressional mechanisms like passing bills by unanimous consent despite the absence of a quorum).  Moreover, as commenters have pointed out, the House has used “self executing rules”  for a number of years, and these rules also can “deem” a bill to have passed.  Finally, the Constitution’s recorded vote requirement does not, at least expressly, prohibit conducting a vote on a rule rather than a bill.

A more substantial objection, however, is that the Slaughter Solution requires the House to conduct a single vote on passage of two separate bills.  This is highly unusual, and perhaps completely unprecedented.  Contrary to some claims, the “Gephardt Rule” is not the same because that procedure involves only one bill (a statutory increase in the public debt limit) and one congressional concurrent resolution, which is not presented to the President and does not become law.

What is the constitutional problem with having one vote to pass multiple bills?  The answer can be found in the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence on the line item veto act, which allowed the President to “rescind” individual spending items in an appropriations act passed by Congress.  Members opposed to the line item veto argued that the line item veto unconstitutionally deprived them of their right to vote on the actual legislation that would become law by allowing the President to pick and choose which parts of the appropriations act would be given legal effect.  In Clinton v. New York, the Supreme Court held the line item veto to be unconstitutional, finding that it effectively allowed the President to create a new law different from the one actually passed by Congress.

The Slaughter Solution raises constitutional issues similar to the line item veto.  By requiring Members to vote on multiple bills at the same time, it deprives them of the opportunity to make discrete decisions on each bill.  Members are forced to make an up-or-down decision on a package of bills, but without knowing which of the bills will ultimately become law.  As Judge McConnell points out, it also deprives voters of the opportunity to hold Members accountable for their votes on each bill.  If the House votes for Bill A and Bill B together, and only Bill B becomes law, Members who voted in favor of the package can claim that they only wanted Bill B to become law on the condition that Bill A also became law.

The Slaughter Solution is most closely analogous to the “separate enrollment” version of the line item veto.  Under this proposal, a bill passed by Congress would be “deemed” to consist of multiple individual bills, which would be separately enrolled, and which could then be individually vetoed by the President.  The constitutionality of this version of the line item veto was debated in Congress in the 1990s, but Congress ultimately chose to pass the “enhanced rescission” version instead, which was eventually struck down by the Supreme Court.

It could be argued that the “separate enrollment” device could survive constitutional scrutiny because it better complies with the formal requirements of Article I than the enhanced rescission version.  On the other hand, Elizabeth Garrett notes that the “extended debate in the Senate may reflect the reality that separate enrollment was really no less constitutionally problematic than enhanced rescission, and, given, its deeming provision that allowed all the little bills to pass without separate votes on each, its constitutionality was perhaps more dubious.” In short, the Slaughter Solution raises serious constitutional issues in that it permits the passage of multiple bills with a single vote.