When free-standing legislation isn’t moving, or when a situation is changing quickly, committee and floor amendments allow Members to get a vote on key provisions.
Usually amendments are slimmed-down versions of legislation that retain only the operative sections, but even lengthy bills can be added as amendments. Amendments can be designed to force a vote or slipped in quietly to avoid discussion. They can be germane to the matter at hand or simply riders using the opportunity to add a controversial provision that could not pass on its own.
- Count your votes ahead of time, and don’t offer your amendment (or withdraw it) if you know you will lose—unless your goal is simply to put members on record.
- Let supportive members know when your amendment will be offered, so they can plan to be on the floor or in the committee at the right time.
- Don’t mislead committee staff or members about the purpose, effect, or level of controversy surrounding your amendment. Even if you succeed in slipping something by them this time, you will burn your bridges for the future.
- Make sure you follow proper parliamentary procedure when introducing an amendment. Check with the House Rules Committee or the Senate Parliamentarian, the committees of jurisdiction, and if you need budget scoring, the CBO as well.
- Letting Others Lead Brings Results. In June 2004, after the atrocities at Abu Ghraib were revealed to the public, Sen. Dick Durbin offered an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act ( Amdt. 3386 to S. 2400, 108th Congress) prohibiting torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment for persons in U.S. custody. The amendment was agreed to by voice vote, but a weaker provision was adopted in conference (Secs. 1091 – 1093 of PL 108-375). Progressively stronger provisions were included in subsequent defense authorization and appropriations acts, and the prohibition was made part of permanent law through the Military Commissions Act of 2006 (PL 109-366). However, several loopholes remained. It wasn’t until Sen. John McCain championed this issue that the Senate passed legislation to close these loopholes. The McCain-Feinstein provision was included as sec. 1045 of the FY 2016 National Defense Authorization Act (PL 114-92)
- Sometimes Losing is Winning. In June 2016, an amendment to the Department of Defense Appropriations Act to ban the sale of cluster bombs to Saudi Arabia was narrowly defeated on the House floor, 204-216. However, the fact that the vote was so close – taken at a time when President Obama was meeting with Saudi officials – sent a strong signal to the Saudis about their conduct in Yemen. Growing congressional opposition also led to an internal review of cluster munitions policy at the Pentagon, and – according to a senior DOD official -- a decision to tighten conditions on their transfer.
- Major Law Began as an Amendment. The so-called “Leahy Law” (actually two laws, 22 U.S.C. 2378d and 10 U.S.C. 2249e) began in 1996 as an amendment to the annual foreign operations appropriations act and was included in the Omnibus Appropriations Act for FY 1997 (PL 104-208). Initially, the amendment prohibited the use of International Narcotics Control funds for “any unit of the security forces of a foreign country if the Secretary of State has credible evidence to believe such unit has committed gross violations of human rights unless the Secretary determines and reports to the Committees on Appropriations that the government of such country is taking steps to bring the responsible members of the security forces unit to justice.” It was later extended to all foreign assistance, and then to DOD-funded security assistance, and, with some changes, finally added to permanent law.
- Using a Rider When One House Won’t Act. The Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, which passed the Senate in December 2015 as S. 284 but was not taken up in the House, was added as a Senate floor amendment to S. 2943, the National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2017 (PL 114-328). It was retained in conference and enacted in December 2016.