With the 116th Congress set to convene on Thursday afternoon, House Democrats have rolled out a package of rules updates for the chamber which put their party’s imprint on the workings of the House, covering everything from making lawmakers pay for legal judgments against them, to technical changes in budget rules, to a plan to speed through resolutions allowing Congress to raise the debt limit, and creation of a special panel on future changes to the U.S. House.
“It restores the people's voice by aligning Congress' agenda with the priorities of the American people,” wrote Speaker-Designate Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), and new House Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern (D-MA).
The proposed changes plow some familiar ground, as Republicans and Democrats change certain items in a back-and-forth manner, depending on which party controls the House, but also contain some substantive changes on the consideration of legislation, ethics reforms, and how the House operates.
Here are some highlights from the Democratic rules plan:
1. Members required to pay for all types of discrimination settlements. Not satisfied with the details of a bill agreed to in late December by the House and Senate, which requires lawmakers – and not taxpayers – to pay for any settlements involving sexual harassment, the new House rules would require lawmakers to be financially responsible for any discrimination judgment against them, whether it involves sexual misconduct, or discrimination based upon race, religion, disability, and more. A separate rules change would also prohibit sexual relationships between members and committee staffers. Currently, that prohibition only applies to staffers who are directly employed by the lawmaker.
2. Immediate actions against indicted lawmakers. With two Republican lawmakers now under indictment, a new rule from Democrats would officially say that any lawmaker charged with a felony must step aside from any committee and leadership positions until the criminal case is disposed of. A separate new rule would also ban anyone employed by the House – whether a member, staffer, or official – from serving on a corporate board. That’s an issue for Rep. Chris Collins (R-NY), who faces charges of insider trading involving a biotech company in Australia. Not only was Collins the largest shareholder of Innate Immunotherapeutics, but also a member of Innate’s board of directors. Another rule change would force the Ethics Committee to immediately pursue an investigation involving a lawmaker who has been indicted or charged with a crime.
3. Democrats would create two new Select Committees. The first new House panel to be set up by Democrats has been known for some time – a committee to specifically examine the issue of climate change – which will be led by by Rep. Cathy Castor (D-FL). The second special panel will be on the “Modernization of Congress” – and will be tasked to look at how best to fashion rules, scheduling, technology, staff, and more to ‘promote a more modern and efficient Congress.’
4. Back and forth. Back and forth. The two parties obviously see things differently on a number of policy matters, and those differences extend to how the House is run as well. Now that Democrats are back in charge, they will again change the name of one House panel to what they like, the Committee on Education and Labor. Republicans had renamed the panel, the Committee on Education and the Workforce. And the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform will be renamed the Committee on Oversight and Reform. Also, Democrats will restore the right of delegates from the District of Columbia, American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Northern Mariana Islands, to vote in certain situations when bills were being amended in the House, but not on votes for final passage of legislation. Democrats gave the delegates those voting rights in 1993, and Republicans took it away in 1995. Democrats restored that in 2007. Republicans took it away in 2011. Democrats will restore it again in 2019.
5. New limits on efforts to depose a Speaker. After watching members of the House Freedom Caucus threaten to oust a pair of House GOP Speakers in recent years, the new Democratic rules package will limit the ability of lawmakers to force a vote during a session to push out a Speaker, using what is known as a ‘motion to vacate’ the chair. Under the new rules proposed by Democrats, any motion to vacate would have to be offered at the direction of the leadership of one of the parties – in other words, a single lawmaker or a small group of lawmakers could not force such a procedural vote in hopes of deposing a Speaker – instead, they would need the majority support of their party to be able to make that attempt on the floor of the House. Currently, just a small number of members could oust a Speaker – who needs a majority of 218 votes to be elected.
6. A “real” 72-hour rule for legislation. When Republicans took over the House after the Obama health law, there was a lot of talk in GOP circles about “READ THE BILL” – and in order to have enough time, Republicans instituted a three-day rule to allow lawmakers time to look at legislation. But what it turned into was a procedure where a bill would be unveiled around 11:30 pm on a Tuesday – that would be day one – then after a second day, the bill would be voted on early on day three. So, it wasn’t a true 3-day rule. Democrats say they are going to have a real 72-hour clock, which would start running when the legislation is posted online. I don’t want to be the cynical curmudgeon in the Press Gallery – but I’ll believe this when I see it.
7. Hats not okay – religious headwear is fine. Another change in the House rules being proposed by the Democrats would deal with what lawmakers can wear on the floor. Currently, you cannot wear a hat on the floor. The only time I can remember a lawmaker wearing a hat was over in the Senate, after one Republican Senate had undergone brain surgery, and wore a baseball cap for a few weeks to cover the scars on his head. Other than that, hats are verboten. But with a new Muslim Democrat from Minnesota, Rep.-Elect Ilhan Omar, the rules would be changed to allow her to wear a religious headscarf on the House floor.
8. Various legislative provisions are also in this rules plan. The sixty page rules package – which can be read here – and a section-by-section analysis here – also has some legislative items tucked into it. The plan would make in order the funding bills that Democrats want to pass to end the partial government shutdown which started on December 22. It would also basically end any votes on raising the debt limit on the House floor, “deeming” a separate resolution that suspends that debt limit through September 30 of the budget year, and sends that on to the Senate – what is known as the “Gephardt Rule,” after ex-Rep. Dick Gephardt (D-MO). The rules plan also does away with the simple motion to table a measure on the War Powers Act – in other words, it would prevent the majority from quickly blocking votes on efforts to force debate on the use of U.S. military force, as just happened a few weeks ago when Republicans in the House blocked action on any plan dealing with an end to U.S. military support for Saudi Arabia in the civil war in Yemen. The plan also makes several technical changes in the most recent budget agreement from 2018. My father always told me technical changes are never done just because a comma needs to be moved.
9. PAYGO is back. Dynamic scoring is out. For you Legislative Nerds on Capitol Hill, this one might get talked about at lunch on Wednesday – while for much of the country, no one will notice. But the new Democratic rules package will again institute what are known as “pay-as-you-go” rules, which require some semblance of budgetary order in the House. If you are going to add spending, and it increases the deficit, then you need to offset that, and find a way to pay for it. That’s not exactly what some Democratic activists were hoping for in the Democratic rules package. Also, the use of ‘dynamic scoring’ to calculate how tax policy changes impact the budget deficit will no longer be allowed. Expect the PAYGO change to draw some fire from more liberal Democrats who believe it would stand in the way of social safety net legislation.
10. A new “Consensus Calendar.” This rules change would allow pieces of legislation which are backed by a veto-proof majority in the House of 290 votes, to get time on the floor for debate and a vote. Along with changes in the Discharge Petition process, the new rules are designed to open up new avenues to get bills and resolutions to the floor which otherwise might be squashed by the majority party. More than likely, these plans would allow votes on issues that have extra support among the minority party – but could also pave the way for bipartisan legislation that cuts across both parties, and gets around opposition within the leadership.
This plan is expected to be voted on Thursday, after the vote on elevating Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) to the post of Speaker of the House.
Pelosi will be the first person to regain the post of Speaker – after serving time in the minority – since Speaker Sam Rayburn (D-TX) did that in the 1950’s, when the House chamber switched between Democrat and Republican control.