The Republicans' New House Rules

The proposed new rules mark the end of business as usual.

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The Republicans regained control of the U.S. House of Representatives by promising an end to business as usual. On Wednesday they announced a new set of rules governing the chamber’s procedures that are, according to incoming Speaker John Boehner’s office, “expansive in its reach, focused in its purpose, and stands to provide a sea change in the way the House operates--with greater openness, deliberation, and efficiency.”

Tying it back to the GOP’s “Pledge to America,” the new rules are in part a direct response to the way the House was run under outgoing Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who came under considerable criticism for the iron-fisted way she ran the chamber, often bringing significant measures to the floor consisting of thousands of pages that members were not even given time to read, let alone study in depth, before being asked to vote on them.

The new rules package, the GOP says, will set “a new standard for transparency and accountability” while making “important budget process reforms that will help end the culture of spending in Washington.” [See 2010: The Year in Cartoons.]

To begin with, members of the House will no longer be able to introduce a bill or a joint resolution without “a statement citing as specifically as practicable the power or powers granted to Congress in the Constitution to enact,” as promised in the pledge. “This will serve to refocus members of Congress, with every bill they introduce, on the Constitution that they take an oath to support and defend,” the GOP says.

The new rules also make the chamber’s deliberations more transparent. All legislation under consideration will be available online for three calendar days before it can be voted upon. “It shall not be in order to consider a bill or joint resolution which has not been reported by a committee until the third calendar day,” the proposed rules say, “on which such measure has been publicly available in electronic form.” The intent of this provision is to allow closer scrutiny of any proposed legislation and its impact on the American people before it is voted on. 

The push for greater openness and accountability also extends to the work of congressional committees. According to a briefing supplied by Boehner’s office, committees will now be required to:

  • Post committee rules online.
  • Provide a three day notice for all markups.
  • Circulate the text of legislation to be marked-up no less than 24 hours before the markup.
  • Post online all votes in the committee 48 hours after a markup.
  • Make available online the text of any amendments adopted in a markup.
  • Post online “truth in testimony” information, “with appropriate redactions to protect the privacy of the witness” so that any conflicts of interest with hearing witnesses are made public.
  • Make available online the member attendance record for each hearing and markup within 24 hours.
  • Webcast and make available online their hearings and markups.
  • Committees, the GOP says, “will be required to file activity reports twice annually, up from the current one report per Congress.” According to the proposed rules, these reports shall include separate sections summarizing the legislative and oversight activities of that committee, a summary of the actions taken and recommendations made with respect to the oversight plans, a summary of any additional oversight activities undertaken by that committee and any recommendations made or actions taken.

    The new rules also make changes to the budget process by repealing the “Gephardt Rule,” thereby ending the practice of “providing for an automatic increase in the debt limit upon the adoption of a new budget resolution” and by placing new limitations on long-term spending. [Read more about government spending.]

    • While under current statutory pay-go rules, a bill must be offset within one-, five-, and 10-year budget windows, in the 112th Congress budget projections must be made for four additional 10-year budget windows.
    • If mandatory spending increases the deficit by $5 billion or more in any of those 10-year windows, the bill would be subject to a point or order.
    • This will prevent “budgetary sleight of hand,” the GOP says, “that allows bills to show balance in the short term while exploding deficits down the line.” The Republicans also plan to make use of a process they are calling “cut as you go” which they will expand to all bills dealing with mandatory spending, meaning that any increases must be matched by cuts in spending--but specifically not tax increases--of an equal or greater amount elsewhere.

      “These reforms represent Republicans' first step in keeping the promises we outlined in the Pledge to America to change the way Washington works and address the people’s priorities: creating jobs and cutting spending,” Boehner said.

      The plan, say GOP insiders, is to put the package online once it is distributed to members, well in advance of the January 4 House Republican organizational conference meeting where amendments can be offered. The vote on the package will come in the full House on January 5, the first day of the new Congress, at which time the Democrats will also be given the opportunity to offer amendments. Any way you slice it, however, the proposed new rules mark the end of business as usual.

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