House Rules for the 117th Congress

The House of Representatives adopted a new rules package on Monday. Here is the text of H. Res 8, a section-by-section summary, a press release that highlights some of the major changes, and a decent overview of activities of the House Rules committee. We have put together a guide to rules reform proposals over the last decade, and, as you know by now, we have advocated for a number of improvements and closely followed the Member-day hearing. Roll Call’s Lindsey McPherson has a good high level summary of the contents. Please note: the House made minor changes to the draft rules, previously called H. Res 5, between Sunday and Monday.

Well, what do we think? Within the constraints imposed by the closely-divided House of Representatives and the strong-Speaker organizing model, the House Rules Committee went as far as could reasonably be expected to continue good practices from prior Congresses (including those started by Republicans) and to adopt smart new policies. It is abundantly clear the Rules Committee made a concerted effort to listen to all the factions in the House and to recommend as many reforms and improvements as possible.

Highlights of the House Rules package:

Strengthening current institutions: The rules package makes permanent the Office of Diversity and Inclusion and the Office of the Whistleblower Ombuds, continues the Office of Congressional Ethics, continues the practice of Committee Member Day hearings, re-adopts a better administrative model for Congressional Member Organizations, continues proxy voting and allows for remote voting, and provided another term for the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress.

Technology: All amendments offered in committees must be online within 48 hours (and adopted amendments w/in 24 hours); committee reports can be filed electronically; provides support to the ongoing comparative print project (that would show how a bill would amend a law); restates the priority of publishing legislative info in machine-readable formats; and House codification of the new Communication Standards.

Messaging: Several changes were made to House rules that limit messaging efforts. This includes limiting Motions to Recommit so they cannot contain instruction. These motions in theory could be constructive but lately have been primarily used for messaging and dilatory purposes. It also stops the offering of amendments to bill titles. Republican leadership can be expected to blast the limiting of the MTR as further centralizing power in leadership, but there have always been ways around the MTR, and centralization of power has been a key goal for leaders in both parties for several decades — especially an effort largely led by Republicans when they cut Congressional staff by 20% in the 1990s and destroyed Legislative Member Organizations. We’d like to see the MTR eventually come back alongside the previously eliminated motion to vacate the chair, but that would require a restructuring of the House that’s beyond what’s currently possible.

Ethics: Former Members who have certain felonies are now barred from the House floor; committee truth-in-testimony documents must include additional information about conflicts-of-interest; the Code of Official conduct is updated in several places: to limit a Member serving as an officer or director of a public company, to prohibit the dissemination of distorted media (note: this was changed to require Rules to issue a report by the end of 2021 instead of outright banning the practice immediately), to protect whistleblowers against retaliation and unwanted disclosure of their identity. The rules package also makes sure that NDAs cannot prohibit staff from talking to the Ethics Committee, OCWR, or OCE; requires Members to pay for discrimination settlements; and continues mandatory anti-harrassment training.

Separation of powers and oversight: Allows staff to take depositions; prevents motions to table War Powers resolutions; and reaffirms the right of the House to subpoena anyone, including the president.

Diversity: Brings back the Office of Diversity and Inclusion and puts it into the rules; requires a report from ODI on how to track diversity of witnesses panels by July 1 and House Admin & Rules to implement recommendations by July 31; replaces all gendered language in the rules to make it more welcoming and inclusive; and committee oversight plans must now address issues of inequities.

Procedural: Bills to be considered on the floor must be first considered by a committee; requires the Clerk to recommend by February 1 a method for House members to co-sponsor Senate bills and the Rules Committee to promulgate regulations to put such a policy into effect.

Select committees: Creates the Select Committee on Economic Disparity and Fairness in Growth as well as bringing back the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, and the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis.

PAYGO: The rules package allows the Budget Committee to adjust budget estimates to exempt the costs arising from addressing COVID-19 or climate change. With statutory PAYGO in effect, we think that rules-based PAYGO is unnecessary, duplicative, and unduly restrictive, so this is a step in the right direction.

What’s missing? For low hanging-fruit, here’s our top 5 of what else we would have liked to see: (1) The restoration of Legislative Member Organizations (eCMOs) with a new funding model; (2) Restoring the prior mechanism by which OCE Board Members are chosen; (3) Requiring the Clerk’s office, which maintains a list of all reports due to Congress, to include a list of reports due to committees and subcommittees; (4) providing every Member of Congress with the option to have a personal office staffer with TS/SCI clearance; (5) to address staff salary caps.

FYI, one thing to watch for on day 1 are announcements by the Speaker as to her policies with respect to the legislative process. In the 116th Congress, this addressed privileges of the floor, policies with respect to introduction of bills and resolution, unanimous-consent requests, recognition for one-minute speeches, recognition for special-order speeches, decorum in debate, conduct of votes by electronic device, use of handouts on the floor, use of electronic equipment on the floor, and use of the chamber. These policies are usually adopted by unanimous consent, although they can be challenged.

A final note. We believe the House should adopt significant additional reforms to undo much of the damage that was cemented into place by Speaker Gingrich in the 1990s, but that kind of change — which addresses the centralization of power — is not possible under the current political arrangement. It would require either an alternation of who is Speaker or a rebellion by the members. We also hasten to add that reform does not just come via the Rules Committee, but also is being driven by House Legislative Branch Appropriations, the House Administration Committee, the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress — and could also arise from reform of the party rules.