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Cleaning Up House: Reforms to Empower U.S. House Committees

From bill introduction, through committees, to final passage, the iconic Schoolhouse Rock segment “I’m Just a Bill” illustrates the ideal path of successful legislation in Congress. Yet, this textbook legislative process no longer reflects what really happens in Congress—a big part of why Congress is struggling to function.

Reinvigorating Congress’ committee system is a prerequisite to “cleaning up” the House. This blog explains two approaches to reforming the committee system. First, changes to the House rules—which determine which bills receive floor votes and whether amendments can be offered—would reduce procedural roadblocks in the legislative process. Second, increasing the resources available to committees would improve their capacity for policymaking.

The Critical Role of Committees

Committees should be the center of Congress’ legislative development. Committee meetings have historically allowed members and staff to develop the necessary policy expertise to craft legislation vis-à-vis the executive branch, and debates within committees are one of the few remaining venues for bipartisan interaction on policy issues.

Throughout history, Congress’ committee system has had differing levels of influence over legislative outcomes. The Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970 weakened the committee system, and House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s 1990s reforms—which weakened congressional capacity in what scholars often term the “big lobotomy”—helped usher in the current era of strong party leadership.

With the rise of strong party leadership came changes to the legislative process. Today, important bills are frequently written by the majority party’s leadership and brought to the House floor with little to no committee consideration or opportunities for amendments. Bill text is sometimes made available to members mere hours before scheduled votes. Additionally, leadership decides which bills will be brought to the floor for a vote, meaning that they can prevent bills with significant support from reaching the floor if they conflict with leadership’s priorities.

House rules include a few mechanisms designed to facilitate floor consideration of committee-reported legislation; however, these mechanisms are rarely, if ever, used. Reforms to these rules can put the House committee system back on the right track and address the nearly ubiquitous complaints about a lack of “regular order” lawmaking among rank-and-file Republicans this Congress.

1. Consensus Calendar

The Consensus Calendar was designed to help bills with high rank-and-file support reach the floor for a vote. It declares that if a bill that has obtained 290 cosponsors (a two-thirds majority) is not reported out of committee within 25 legislative days, it is automatically placed on the Consensus Calendar. House majority leadership is required to consider at least one bill from the Consensus Calendar during each week in session.

Increased use of the Consensus Calendar can be a useful tool for the rare bill with broad support which the majority leadership does not want to come to the floor. However, it is unlikely to significantly change House power dynamics as it is best suited towards bringing bills with supermajority support to the floor. Those bills generally have a good chance of reaching the floor as party leaders tend to support items once the majority of their caucus is behind them.

2. Calendar Wednesday

This rule allows the House to use Wednesdays for floor consideration of bills reported out of committee. It is a somewhat effective way to work around House leadership, and consequently has been watered down in recent years.

Until 2009, the default procedure was for Calendar Wednesday to be called unless members chose not to observe it. In 2009, the House changed its rules to make the default procedure for Calendar Wednesday not to be called. To initiate Calendar Wednesday, an authorized committee member would have to call for the rule’s use by the preceding legislative day. Though Calendar Wednesday has not been used in decades, it was further restricted in 2023 to require that it be called at least 72 hours in advance. These limitations illustrate leadership’s understanding of the rule’s ability to empower committees.

Congress could reinstate the pre-2009 rule to ensure the default Calendar Wednesday procedure is to call the rule. This would make it easier for committee-reported bills to get a floor vote and tilt the power dynamic back slightly towards committees.

These procedural reforms would incentivize participation in the House committee system and improve the rank and file’s ability to impact legislative outcomes. Procedural reforms are not the only way to reinvigorate committees.

House committees need sufficient capacity to draft legislation and conduct effective oversight. Bolstering their resources, such as committee staff and legislative branch support agencies, can help achieve this. These support systems have suffered from cripplingly low budgets beginning in the mid-1990s, reducing Congress’ functionality.

Recognizing that continued investment in congressional capacity will pay dividends down the road, lawmakers from both parties have begun to reverse this trend. Created in January 2019 under a Democratic majority, the bipartisan Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress investigated avenues to modernize congressional operations, including increased committee capacity. Congress increased committee budgets in fiscal years 2022 and 2023 beginning with a 21% increase in FY2022—the strongest investment in congressional capacity in years. Given the long-term decline in funding, this increase only returned the committee budgets to their 2010 levels. When the majority switched in 2023, almost every Republican committee chair sought increased committee budgets and Republicans have continued the Modernization Committee’s work under the purview of the Committee on House Administration.

There are other avenues the House can take to strengthen the committee system even if it does not increase legislative branch funding in FY2024.

3. Increasing Job Stability for Committee Staff

Changing majorities in Congress often means one party must reduce its committee staff while the other increases, creating unpredictability for staff. One way to increase job stability would be embedding some nonpartisan staff within committees. Nonpartisan staff would not be subject to the same turnover constraints as partisan staff, and many state legislatures use some share of nonpartisan staff for committees.

A second potential reform would be to allocate committee budgets more closely tied to the party split of the House. The House customarily allocates two-thirds of committee funding to the majority, meaning that the 51% Republican majority at the start of this Congress receives 67% of the funds (as did the Democrats’ 51% majority in the last Congress).

The Senate allocates committee funding more equitably, providing a model for reforms to House committee funding. The Senate first uses its committee funding to hire administrative staff to be shared by both parties. Ten percent of the remaining funds is allocated to the majority party. The other remaining 90% is allocated according to the party split of the Senate, resulting in a much fairer division of committee budgets by party. The Senate also places a maximum limit on the party split—60% for the majority and 40% for the minority. A similar budget allocation in the House would ensure each party has the resources to retain committee staff and institutional knowledge even as majorities shift.

4. Semi-permanent Congressional Research Service (CRS) Detail

In addition to providing Congress with research products to educate them on various topics, CRS’s authorizing statute also provides for the hiring of issue-specific Specialists and Senior Specialists to be detailed to committees. Despite the benefits of providing committees with a CRS detail, this rarely occurs. Taking full advantage of CRS’s committee detail function would allow CRS researchers to more efficiently respond to the research needs of that committee.

Congressional committees are the engines of the legislative branch. They allow legislators to exchange ideas, weigh tradeoffs, and find common ground—the basis of our democracy. To reignite its engine, Congress should begin by empowering committees through procedural and capacity reforms.

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