Sometimes you have to strike the last word to get in a few more words.
As members of the House Judiciary Committee debated the two proposed articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump with sometimes loud, angry disagreements Thursday morning one phrase kept popping up: “I move to strike the last word.”
Turns out they weren’t striking anything. Instead, they were using a parliamentary procedure during the "mark-up" session to keep talking longer than a five-minute rule would allow.
As the Congressional Research Service explains in a report called “Speaking on the House Floor: Gaining Time and Parliamentary Phraseology,” when a House member offers an amendment, he or she is allowed five minutes to explain it. A member who wants to oppose it is also limited to five minutes.
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But members can extend the debate through what are called “pro forma” amendments to strike one or more words of the text. They are offered only to get another five minutes to speak.
“In other words, no change to the other words, no change to the text under consideration is substantively proposed; the proponent is not actually suggesting a word or words be stricken,” the report, written by Elizabeth Rybicki, explains.
If after the two members speak, another House member wants to talk, he or she starts a new round — as the paper notes, technically to speak on the pro forma amendment, but in fact to continue debate on the pending substantive amendment.
“I move to strike the last word,” he or she says.
Bill Shute, the interim director of the Washington Center of the LBJ School of Public Affairs at The University of Texas at Austin, called the technique "an old trick to allow members a chance to speak for five minutes additional."
"The old adage in D.C. is 'Everything may have been said but not everybody has said it,'" he said.
With Democrats controlling the House, Republican-authored amendments were not expected to pass. One Republican effort — an attempt to strike the first article of impeachment, abuse of power — failed after a series of often contentious exchanges during which the GOP tried to undermine the case against the president.
Another, introduced by Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, took a much nastier turn. The amendment asked that a reference to former Vice President Joe Biden be removed from the articles of impeachment and be replaced with Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company, and his son, Hunter Biden, who sat on its board.
Gaetz read from a profile of Hunter Biden that was published in The New Yorker and that went into his past drug abuse. Democratic Rep. Hank Johnson of Georgia quickly made an indirect reference to Gaetz’s own 2008 arrest on a driving under the influence charge, which was later dropped.
"The pot calling the kettle black is not something we should do," Johnson said. "I don't know what members have had problems with substance abuse, been busted for DUI — I don't know. But if I did, I wouldn't raise it against anyone."
The committee is expected to approve the impeachment articles later in the day and send them on to the full House. The House plans to vote on them next week.
The Democrats did approve one amendment. They added Trump's middle name, John.