A new Congress with new members and new ideas represents an opportunity to change business-as-usual when it comes to legislating. The actions taken on the first day of the 116th Congress by the new House of Representatives—if implemented and observed throughout the next two years—should improve governance even during this period of high polarization.
The House conducted three essential pieces of business when it convened. First, all members of the new Congress took their oaths of office. Second, they selected the Speaker of the House. Third, they ratified a set of rules that will govern the chamber for the next two years.
Among those rules are two provisions that have the potential to greatly improve the way Congress conducts the nation’s business.
The adoption of rules to govern the House of Representatives is standard procedure on “opening day,” and for the most part, the bulk of the rules carry over from Congress to Congress. When control of the chamber switches parties, however, the new majority often makes rule changes to set the tone for how it will govern.
Two rules crafted by the new Democratic majority are aimed at shortcomings which, in recent years, have plagued the chamber’s legislative process. The first promises a greater role for committees in drafting legislation and the second enshrines more transparency around legislation scheduled for a vote. Both reflect recommendations made by BPC’s Commission on Political Reform in its report, Governing in a Polarized America: A Bipartisan Blueprint to Strengthen our Democracy.
In recent years, congressional committees have taken a back seat to party leadership in drafting important legislation. As a result, committee deliberations became unrewarding and ultimately useless. Rank-and-file members on both sides of the aisle griped that they had little input on what comes to the floor. Opportunities to find common ground withered.
Committees should be delegated the work of fact-finding, drafting legislation, and initial deliberation before a bill is sent to the floor. They accomplish these tasks through rigorous hearings. BPC’s Commission on Political Reform has long recommended that, “Important legislation should not be brought to the floor of either the House of Representatives or the Senate without the benefit of committee deliberations and a full report.” It is the commission’s belief that better legislation with bipartisan input is drafted this way.
The rules adopted for the 116th Congress seek to restore this traditional role for committees. Beginning March 1, 2019, any member may raise a point of order against the consideration of a measure that has not been reported by a committee. A point of order may also be raised if the committee report accompanying the measure does not include a list of relevant hearings used to develop the underlying measure. If the point of order is sustained by the presiding officer, the measure will cease to be considered by the House at that time.
BPC’s commission also argued that after the successful development of legislation in committee, the House must engage in robust debate. Partisan rancor is only heightened when the minority cannot fully voice its views on the floor. In recent years, however, legislation has been rushed to a vote with little time for members or the public to read it, let alone develop proposals to improve it. These tactics tend to particularly disadvantage the minority who feel blindsided. As a result, the Commission on Political Reform recommended that, “Bills should be posted a minimum of three days in advance of a vote to allow sufficient time for members and the public to read and discuss the measures.”
The rules changes adopted for the 116th Congress seek to bring more transparency and fairness to the scheduling of legislation coming before the House in the vein of the BPC recommendations. The new rules require that legislative text be made publicly available for a full 72 hours before it is considered in the House.
If both the spirit and letter of these new rules are respected by the Democratic majority, they should considerably improve the functioning of the House and the quality of legislation it produces. While encouraging, these changes alone will not solve all of Congress’s governing challenges, but they are a step in the right direction.