On September 13, the House Committee on Rules’ Subcommittee on Rules and Organization of the House held a Members’ Day Hearing in which lawmakers submitted proposed rules changes for the 116th Congress. Over a dozen members—both Democrats and Republicans—submitted their ideas to the subcommittee.
Member proposals were wide-ranging in both substance and likelihood of implementation. Rep. Sarbanes (D-Md.) asked Congress to follow in its own historical footsteps and organize a Select Committee on Congressional Capacity, which would solicit lawmaker and expert testimony on potential reforms to improve the operations of the House. And Rep. Bonamici (D-Ore.) suggested that committees adopt a staggered seating arrangement such that a member of the minority is seated next to a majority member, in hopes of fostering communication across party lines.
Though some ideas were unique, members’ proposals generally fell into two broad categories.
Drain the Swamp
Multiple members argued that Congress would better function if its lawmakers adopted rules changes to combat corruption, or at least its appearance. In an effort to limit member dependence on special interests, Rep. Gallagher (R-Wisc.) asked that campaign fundraising be illegal on any day the House is in session.
And in a direct response to the recent indictment of Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.) for insider trading, Rep. Rice’s (D-N.Y.) proposed rules change would prohibit current members from sitting on the board of any publicly regulated company while in office. Banning such member involvement would ostensibly limit conflicts of interest in which lawmakers could profit from their congressional positions. Subcommittee member response to this proposal was unanimously supportive, and several expressed surprise that board-member service wasn’t already banned under the current rules.
“Allow legislators to be legislators again”
The vast majority of member proposals, as well as their accompanying testimony, gave voice to bipartisan frustration with many internal procedures that effectively dictate how the House is run. Across the board—even from many subcommittee members hearing the proposals—lawmakers asked for rules changes that would facilitate the decentralization of decision and policymaking authority from leaders to congressional committees and rank-and-file members. As put to me in a recent conversation with Rep. Tom Reed (R-NY), “we want rules changes that allow legislators to be legislators again.”
For some, this means codifying rules changes that grant lawmakers increased time to read and understand legislation rather than rely on leadership talking points and voting instructions. Rep. Biggs (R-Ariz.), for example, proposed prohibiting waiving the three-day rule, which mandates that reported bill language be available to members for at least three legislative days before being eligible for consideration.
Others argue that rules changes are necessary incentivize members to take a more active role in legislating. As a first step, this means that fewer closed rules—a procedure that disallows amendments from being offered—be issued by the Rules Committee. In the words of Rep. McGovern (D-Mass.), “The Rules Committee has become the place where democracy goes to die” because of its outsize ability to structure floor debate or bottle up legislation that would pass if given a vote. (For the record, the 115th Congress has issued more closed rules than any other Congress.)
Other proposed changes put forward by Rep. Reed and the 48-member, bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus he co-chairs include a guarantee that any bill with at least290 cosponsors receives a committee markup and committee-reported legislation receives privileged floor consideration. These proposals, Reed argues, would foster an incentive for bipartisanship. “Too much of what we do here as lawmakers is saying no and obstructing. That’s too easy. Changing the rules of the game would empower rank-and-file members from both sides of the aisle to get to yes. It’s long overdue.” Outside experts agree wholeheartedly.
Members are clamoring for a return to a semblance of regular order, a process under which most current lawmakers have never operated. If such proposals are adopted, members will be forced to exert more effort, more regularly, in all aspects of their jobs, from legislating to oversight. That’s a good thing, but it isn’t without cost. Open legislating is loud, hard, messy and uncertain—characteristics leaders of both parties have worked to avoid at all costs, especially when in the majority. Many more bills will go down in defeat. That’s OK if more members are playing a role.
The purpose of Congress, particularly the people’s House, is to provide a forum for open disagreement with avenues toward compromise. Debate is essential. It should be championed rather than shied away from. Elected Representatives should work to hash out agreements—yes, even bipartisan ones—with confidence that if successful their efforts will be awarded with committee and floor attention. The alternative is a few members deciding operations for the many. And we already know how that movie ends.