On the first day of the 116th Congress, the House of Representatives adopted the rules by which it will be governed for the next two years. The chamber’s new Democratic leadership, largely responsible for crafting those rules, hailed them as honoring the voters’ call for “…a Congress that would be more transparent, ethical and focused on debating and advancing good ideas no matter where they come from.” To fulfill that goal, however, the House will need a new style of leadership to break from the norms of the past few congresses.
Leading up to the speaker election, Rep. Nancy Pelosi cut deals on rules changes with different factions and individuals within the party to assure her victory. These included a process for bills with broad bipartisan support to get guaranteed floor consideration, as well as several ideas advocated by BPC’s Commission on Political Reform, including requiring hearings and markups before bills are voted on, and 72-hours’ notice before a bill is brought to the floor so that the public and members can read it.
The rules changes are a step in the right direction, but they are not enough to end dysfunction in the House. A more robust amendment process where rank-and-file members can contribute to legislation is needed.
Speaker Pelosi is well-aware of this key weakness in the legislative process, having criticized her Republican predecessors for using “every tool at their disposal to shut down the free flow of ideas.” Former speakers John Boehner and Paul Ryan imposed a highly restrictive amendment process on floor debates through the Rules Committee.
The powerful House Rules Committee is sometimes referred to as “the Speaker’s committee” because it is often the means by which the majority controls the legislative process on the floor. The speaker typically appoints members who will loyally carry out her or his legislative and procedural wishes. The result is an outsize influence for the speaker and the majority over how bills will be debated and amended.
This is where a new style of leadership is needed. If the House is to change the way it does business, the leadership needs to change the way it runs the House.
As noted by BPC’s Commission on Political Reform, in recent years, the leadership in the House and Senate have heavily restricted debate on legislation. In the House, when a major bill comes to the floor, it is typically accompanied by a special rule reported by the Rules Committee. These special rules set the terms of debate and amendment. Open rules, which allow any member to offer amendments, have become almost non-existent. Closed rules, which allow no amendments, and structured rules, which allow only amendments pre-approved by the majority-controlled Rules Committee, have become the norm. “Good ideas no matter where they come from” cannot flourish in this environment.
Rank-and-file members in both parties have become outraged at the lack of debate and amendments. They should be. Restricting amendments degrades Americans’ representation in Congress and mostly disadvantages the minority who, otherwise, have had little input on legislation. Worse, disputes over the procedural management of legislation fan the flames of partisanship in Washington. It has not always been this way and it does not have to be going forward. Speaker Pelosi’s own record in this area was not particularly strong during the 110th and 111th Congresses. She and the new chair of the House Rules Committee, Rep. Jim McGovern, must be the change they want to see.
If Speaker Pelosi and Rep. McGovern truly want the House to be “America’s Town Hall” where ideas are debated and legislation improved through a robust, deliberative process, it is within their power. They can begin by reporting bills with more open rules and fewer closed rules, as BPC’s Commission on Political Reform has long recommended. When structured rules are employed, the minority should be allotted most of the amendments that are considered and the number should be ample. This change is not one that can be codified or enforced through the rules of the House. It must be accomplished through a new approach to leadership.