"The American people called for greater civility in how Congress conducts its work, and Democrats pledge to conduct our work with civility and bipartisanship, and to act in partnership - not partisanship - with the president and Republicans in Congress."
- House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Nov. 14, 2006
"We must turn the page on partisanship and usher in a new era of bipartisan progress."
- Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Jan. 4, 2007
Pelosi and Reid opened this Congress pledging a new openness and a respect for the rights of the minority party. Fifteen months later, their actions tell a far different story. The Colombia Free Trade Agreement and Sen. Reid's breaking of his word on a public-lands bill are the most recent evidence that a bait-and-switch is at work here.
Pelosi has stated that she will change House rules to circumvent the 90-day timetable for taking up the Colombia Free Trade Agreement that President Bush just submitted to Congress.
The Colombia accord was negotiated under a fast-track law that has since expired - but which clearly, specifically covered votes on the agreement.
The expired law forbids amendments to trade pacts and requires that both the House and Senate act on the agreement within three months after the president submits the pact to Congress.
Their own rules and procedures are the constitutional domain of the two houses of Congress, yet the spirit of the fast-track agreement - to date, never violated - is that the House and Senate would have an up-or-down vote on trade deals within the timeframe set forth by the statute.
But Pelosi says she will ask the House Rules Committee to remove the fast-track timeline for the Colombia accord and push a vote to later this year.
Understandably, this doesn't sit well with House Minority Leader John Boehner. "Any vote to delay the consideration of the Colombia Free Trade Agreement would violate the spirit of the law and undermine our ability to create more American jobs," he said, "Let me be clearer: It would be cheating."
The US-Colombia deal is important because it would open Colombia's market to American services, consumer products and agricultural exports. The agreement would further strengthen US intellectual-property rights and investments.
And it would also strengthen Colombia as an ally against the Marxist forces in Venezuela that are trying to destabilize South American democracies that have good relations (trade and otherwise) with the United States.
Reid, meanwhile, recently backed out of a unanimous-consent agreement to bring up a public-lands package passed by the Senate Energy Committee. His problem: The agreement also contained an amendment to apply state gun laws to the possession of firearms in national parks - so that voting on the overall bill could have posed political problems for anti-gun Democrats. He introduced a new lands package to avoid putting any of his members in that bind.
The Senate conducts much of its business by unanimous-consent agreements, and any violation of the letter and spirit of these agreements leads to a trampling of the rights of the minority party.
Republicans were guilty of some similar infractions when they ran Congress, but these recent actions are new nadirs - gross violations of comity in the House and Senate. No wonder Congress' approval ratings are at record lows.
Brian Darling is director of US Senate relations and congressional analyst at The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).
First appeared in the New York Post