Senate-endorsed sanctions against Russia are on hold after the House flagged the proposed legislation for an obscure “blue-slip” violation. So what exactly is a blue slip and how can it stop Senate legislation?
Actually, the House and the Senate each have a policy where its members can slip a protest, on a blue piece of paper. In the Senate, blue slips are used by a Senator from a jurisdiction of a judicial nominee to show support or opposition to a nomination.
In the House, blue slips are filed when a member, usually the chair of the Ways and Means Committee, thinks a bill that originated in the Senate involves certain revenues considerations, and the bill should have started in the House instead.
The Constitution’s Article 1, Section 7, Clause 1 states that “all Bills for raising Revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives; but the Senate may propose or concur with Amendments as on other Bills.” Known as the Origination Clause, the two legislative bodies don’t always agree what is a revenue consideration and who actually originated passages in legislation that trigger a blue-slip complaint.
In the current debate, the Senate passed Russia sanctions in a 98-2 vote and sent its bill along to the House for consideration. House Ways and Means Committee Chair Kevin Brady said his committee worked closely with their Senate counterparts on the bill’s language to avoid a blue-slip situation, but he flagged the bill after talking with the House Parliamentarian about language added to it at the last moment that he hadn’t seen.
“At the end of the day, this isn’t a policy issue; this isn’t a partisan issue,” Brady told reporters on Tuesday. “This is a constitutional issue that we’ll address in a positive way.” Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair Bob Corker, Brady’s fellow Republican, didn’t exactly agree with the House ruling. “We felt like we had adequately dealt with the blue-slip issue when we did it. I look forward to seeing what the complaint might be,” Corker said.
So far, the offending passage hasn’t been made public. But the House has the ability to exercise its constitutional privileges under the Origination Clause to return the bill to the Senate, with the blue piece of paper attached, listings its objections.
Normally, the House can reject a Senate bill if it includes language that included any “meaningful revenue proposal.” The Congressional Research Service says this definition of revenue is a question of interpretation that sits with the House. “The Constitution does not provide specific guidelines as to what constitutes a bill for raising revenue,” it said in a January 2017 report.
As of Tuesday, Brady said he would prefer that the Senate take the bill back and resubmit it without the provisions that triggered the blue slip. “I think the Senate can move pretty quickly to correct that provision and send it back to us. That would be my preference.”
The Senate also can resubmit the bill by inserting it in an already approved piece of House-proposed legislation that includes revenue measures.
Scott Bomboy is the editor in chief of the National Constitution Center.