CLEVELAND – There’s a reason why Republicans tapped Rep. Steve Womack, R-Ark., to preside over the GOP convention Monday afternoon and quash a demand for a roll-call vote on a controversial rules package by forces who oppose Donald Trump: Womack’s done this before.
He has a history of deploying heavy-handed tactics from the dais in the House of Representatives.
The House Republican brass often summons Womack to preside over combustible debates in Congress. And on at least two occasions, the House Republican leadership has installed Womack in the chair when they needed someone to tilt the playing field to secure a particular outcome.
Such was the case in January 2012 when Democrats and Republicans alike were demanding a vote on a bill to provide relief for millions of people in New York, New Jersey and elsewhere following Superstorm Sandy.
With Womack presiding, a Republican congressman tried to adjourn the House over the bipartisan wishes of lawmakers wanting the House to consider the Sandy legislation. In much the same way that things unfolded Monday afternoon in Cleveland, Womack called for those in favor of adjourning to yell “aye” and those opposed to shout “nay.” Only a skeleton crew of lawmakers blurted a meek “aye” in favor of adjournment. The boisterous lawmakers hoping to get a vote on the Sandy bill ear-splittingly screeched “no!”
As the presiding officer wielding the gavel, Womack paused for a moment and gripped the rostrum. He inhaled deeply and grimaced, turning his head to the right as he pondered what he should do. The noes had clearly prevailed – at least audibly. Yet the House was supposed to adjourn. So Womack weighed this decision in silence for what seemed like an eternity, holding those occupying the House floor in rapt attention.
Then, Womack pronounced his decree.
“In the opinion of the chair, the ayes have it,” proclaimed Womack. He then hastily rapped the gavel, terminating the House session.
The Sandy bill was dead for the time being -- until lawmakers finally approved it nearly a month later.
Monday’s scene on the convention floor Monday was not quite so shocking, but nevertheless dramatic. He was presiding when anti-Trump forces tried to call a roll-call vote on rules that blocked their bid to free delegates committed to the billionaire businessman. Both the “ayes” and the “nays” were loud, but Womack triggered an uproar by abruptly quashing the anti-Trump effort.
Womack, in the House, also found himself presiding on another occasion in March 2014 in what turned out to be an even tougher parliamentary pickle.
Democrats and Republicans struggled to find the votes to approve something called “the doc fix.” The doc fix was an onerous, expensive multi-billion dollar patch Congress approved for years to reimburse physicians who treat Medicare patients. The patch consistently added to the deficit. But lawmakers had to approve each Band-Aid, or physicians would quit taking Medicare patients and the entire system might collapse.
But no one was quite ready to approve the “doc fix” in March of 2014.
The House debated the bill and lurched into an abrupt recess. After an hour of off-floor negotiations, Womack quickly gaveled the House back into session. He immediately summoned the doc fix legislation to the floor and rapidly read from a piece of paper before him:
“The question is will the House suspend the rules and pass the bill. So many as are in favor say aye,” stated Womack.
A few meek voices meekly spat out an “aye.”
Womack didn’t stop.
“Those opposed, no,” said Womack.
Some different voices in the chamber hacked out a “no.” But without acknowledging them and with some lawmakers still uttering “no,” Womack steamed ahead. Not even a millisecond elapsed between. Nor did Womack look up to evaluate whether there were more nays than yeas.
“In the opinion of the chair, two-thirds of those being in the affirmative, the rules are suspended the bill is passed, and the motion to reconsider is laid on the table,” claimed Womack.
At that point, the right hand of the Arkansas Republican released its grip on the rostrum. Womack grabbed the gavel and with an efficient stroke, rapped it on the dais. Without missing a beat, Womack announced a roll-call vote on a measure to sanction Russia. Bells rang throughout the Capitol complex, summoning lawmakers to the chamber.
And no one was quite sure what was going on.
“They voiced it? My God,” exclaimed an incredulous then-rank-and-file Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., as he cut through the Speaker’s Lobby en route to the floor.
“I've seen some dumb things. But I've never seen anything as comical as this,” affirmed then-Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., the longest-serving lawmaker in the history of Congress.
Lawmakers from both sides grew angry when they realized the House approved the doc fix – without their knowledge – and probably without the necessary votes.
“I’m outraged by this political ploy today to push through the legislation by ‘voice vote,’” fumed Rep. Luke Messer, R-Ind.
The common denominator between the 2012 motion to adjourn, the 2014 doc fix vote and the effort to block anti-Trump forces on the floor of the convention in Cleveland: Rep. Steve Womack.