How will the House adopt rules for the 117th Congress?

We hosted a webinar on October 14th, 2020, on the process by which the House of Representatives will consider its rules for the 117th Congress and some of the big ideas that have been proposed to modernize those rules. We are pleased to make the video available online as well as publish our slides from the presentation.

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What Happened at the House Rules Committee Member Day Hearing

At the start of the new Congress, the House of Representatives will adopt new procedural rules that govern nearly every aspect of how it conducts business. In preparation, the House Rules Committee held a Members’ Day hearing on October 1, 2020, where it heard testimony from 16 Members in person over more than 3 hours, and received written comments from another 5 members.

The following is a high level summary of the requests from each Member. Demand Progress has its own recommendations on what rules should be updated, which are available here.

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Select Recommendations for Updating the House Rules 117th Congress

Introduction

Demand Progress released 129 recommended updates to the Rules of the House of Representatives and separate orders the House should adopt for the 117th Congress as part of an August 20, 2020 report. The report is the culmination of months of work, reflects significant engagement with experts on Congress, and addresses ten major thematic areas. 

We recognize the volume of recommendations in the full report can be overwhelming, so the following document highlights 13 reforms that the House should consider. We chose these particular reform recommendations based on how feasible they are to implement, the extent to which they would strengthen the House of Representatives, their political viability, and their overall significance to Congressional operations.

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House Rules: How Committees Operate

Each House committee has rules that dictate how the committee will function. These rules govern how many members must be present to take an action (i.e., quorum requirements), subpoenas, and other actions. The committees are (theoretically) the workhorses of Congress — legislation, reports, budgets, appropriations, and oversight all originate in committees. 

Committee rules exist under the umbrella of the rules that govern the entire House of Representatives. House and committee rules change every two years as the “new” House takes office after elections. The Congressional Research Service notes: “One of the majority party’s prerogatives is writing House rules and using its numbers to effect the chamber’s rules on the day a new House convenes.” 

That CRS report provides an overview of House rule changes from 2007 to 2017. CRS also provides a survey of House and Senate subpoena requirements through 2018. Finally, a CRS report describes rule changes affecting committee procedures in the current 116th Congress. 

Current committee rules are compiled in this 400 page document. Here are some highlights:

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What’s the Difference? Senate Committee Quorum Rules and Procedures

Despite the longstanding warnings from the Capitol attending physician and D.C. health official extending the stay-at-home order from May 15 to June 8, the Senate chose to return to Washington DC on May 4 for regular business. This includes voting on voting on nominations on the Senate floor as well as holding various committee proceedings.

But a majority of the committee proceedings have been different since the Senate has returned, with senators often choosing to appear via video conference to adhere to social distancing guidelines. Earlier this year, the Senate HELP Committee hosted a proceeding that included the chairman, the ranking member, and all four witnesses all participating via video conference. 

Given the circumstances, these modified proceedings had us thinking: What are the quorum requirements of each committee and what could potentially need to be changed if virtual proceedings are fully implemented?

Senate Rule XXVI establishes specific requirements for certain Senate committee procedures. In addition, each Senate committee is required to adopt rules to govern its own proceedings. These rules may “not be inconsistent with the Rules of the Senate,” but committees are allowed some flexibility to establish rules tailored to how certain activities can be conducted, which can result in significant variation in the way each committee operates. 

Given the changing circumstances of committee proceedings, we read each Senate committee’s rules and procedures to find trends, gaps, and unusual practices. Our complete spreadsheet on the House and Senate committee rules breakdown can be found here and is embedded below. 

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Who Steers the Ship? An Examination of House Steering and Policy Committee Membership

House Democrats and Republicans use internal party committees to control major aspects of the legislative process, including choosing who gets to serve on legislative committees. As we all know, personnel is policy.

Under the House rules, each party decides committee assignments for its members. As a result, the steering and policy committees are the scene of intraparty jockeying for power. With a large number of members competing for a relatively small number of key committee assignments and leadership roles, the parties’ respective steering committees act as a filter for who will rise and a sorting mechanism among the party’s internal factions. It is also a mechanism by which leadership taxes members to provide financial contributions in support of the party.

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Initial Thoughts on the House’s Remote Deliberation Resolution

This morning, House Rules Committee Democrats introduced a resolution (H. Res 965) that would provide for some remote deliberations for House committees and on the floor. Accompanying that resolution was a Dear Colleague from the Rules Committee that explains how the resolution would work, a one-page explainer, and a statement from the Democratic members of the Virtual Task Force on the resolution.

In short, the resolution:

  • Provides for proxy voting on the House floor, which would be turned on, extended, and turned off at the direction of the House Speaker. Members would send a letter to the House Clerk to designate their proxy, and no such designee can cast more than 10 proxy votes. The Clerk would publish the proxy designation on its website. The proxy is revocable, and must provide specific direction as to how to vote. Members voting by proxy would count towards a quorum.
  • Provides a mechanism for the Chair of the House Administration Committee (in consultation with the RM) to advise on whether secure technology is available to allow for remote voting on the floor. The Chair of the House Rules Committee would then promulgate regulations to put it into effect (to be published in the Congressional Record), and the Speaker would notify the House that remote voting is now possible. Presumably, the Speaker would be able to choose whether to provide this notice.
  • Provides for remote deliberations for hearings and markups for committees. Many of the details of how this would work have been pushed to the Rules Committee, whose chair (in consultation with the RM) would issue regulations on remote deliberations that would be published in the Congressional Record. To conduct business meetings (which presumably means markups), a majority of Members of the Committee would have to certify they will follow the regulations and that the committee is ready for remote deliberations.

I am still thinking through the implications of this resolution, which will be considered on Thursday before the House Rules Committee and on Friday on the House floor. Generally speaking, it is a welcome step towards restoring the functionality of the House of Representatives during the COVID-19 pandemic. The choice is stark: a remote House or no House, and this belated move will begin to restore the power of the legislative branch, at least in the people’s House.

I have to applaud the Members of the Virtual House Task Force, Reps. Hoyer, McGovern, and Lofgren, who worked hard to find a solution that met the dire circumstances and made efforts to protect minority rights. I am concerned that Republican members of the Task Force (McCarthy, Cole, and Davis) did not support the final product — and I remain concerned about protecting the ability of the minority to be heard — but given the political circumstances, the position of the minority is not surprising. Hopefully additional accommodations can be made to meet the needs of the majority and the minority, leadership and rank-and-file, as regulations to implement this are promulgated.

I have some reactions to the resolution that are worth sharing. I haven’t fully thought this though, but here are some initial reactions:

(1) A lot of eggs are being put in the basket of the regulations that McGovern will promulgate. The strength and weaknesses of those regulations will go a long way to determining whether this is a workable and fair solution.

(2) The resolution does not yet turn on remote committee markups. Rather, they’re pending both McGovern regulations and certification from the committees. I wonder how long this will take and how many committees are ready to act. It seems like some of them are ready to lead.

(3) The power to go to remote proceedings on the floor and in the committees is placed solely in Pelosi’s hands. She can declare, she can extend. Members of the House are non-entities for this purpose. It would have been preferable for the House to have a role in voting to confirm, extend, and cancel these proceedings.

(4) After House Admin issues report on feasibility of remote voting on the floor, McGovern would issue new regulations on how it works, but Pelosi still has to give notice to the House to turn it on. Power is put in the Speaker’s hands (and not shared with the House).

(5) I don’t see anything beyond remote voting and counting for quorum on the House floor. Specifically, I don’t see anything about how members can participate in debate remotely. Is this an omission? An oversight? Something else? What about the ability to make motions, to object, etc.?

(6) There’s no requirements for transparency, which will be issued by McGovern later. This is a big deal, as it has to do with how public and press can see what’s going on. It makes me nervous to turn off the House Committee’s transparency requirements with a TBD in their place.

(7) Committees cannot hold executive session remotely (except for Ethics committee). Will the NDAA be a more open process? What about Intel oversight?

(8) To turn on remote voting on the House floor, it requires: (1) House admin study + certification that operable and secure tech exists; (2) Rules Cmte Chair submitting regulations, published in the congressional record, that provide for implementation of remote voting; (3) Speaker must provide notice to the House before it’s turned on.

9) There’s lots of interesting technology changes/ improvements, some of which are long overdue.

  • Publication of list of proxy voting designees by the Clerk on the website
  • Committee reports may be delivered to the Clerk in electronic form, including views of minority
  • Electronic motions, amendments, measures, and documents is good enough — don’t need it to be printed
  • Don’t need recorded vote records to be available in committee offices
  • Oath can be given remotely
  • Subpoenas can be signed by electronic signature and attested by the Clerk by electronic signature
  • Can do subpoenas both for hearings and for depositions

There’s a lot more the House should and could be doing from a technology perspective. Unfortunately, the HEROES Act (i.e., CARES 2.0) does not provide for technological modernization in the legislative branch, and it’s likely that there will be no money available through the legislative branch appropriations process. This is a huge missed opportunity that could undermine the ability of the House to modernize in the way that’s necessary to meet this challenge.

Continuity of Congress: A Timeline of Remote Deliberations and Voting

Congress has been mostly absent as the country fights against the COVID-19 pandemic. Even before the pandemic began, many lawmakers, outside organizations, and former Members of Congress encouraged the legislative branch to instantiate remote deliberations and voting measures in the event of an emergency. 

The following is a timeline of many of the recent key events concerning Continuity of Congress during a pandemic. More information can be found at continuityofcongress.org

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Can Online Presence Count Towards A Quorum?

The Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations released a fantastic report last week analyzing the constitutional rules governing quorum requirements to coincide with last week’s virtual hearing on Continuity of Senate Operations and Remote Voting in Times of Crisis.

If you’re not a policy wonk who finds quorum requirements inherently interesting, consider this: Determinations around remote quorum partially dictate whether Congress can hold official proceedings and votes remotely. In other words, this analysis impacts how Congress may or may not work remotely.

So where did the committee fall on the issue? The short answer is, it’s complicated.

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Continuity of Congress Play-By-Play For The Week Ending May 2, 2020.

CONTINUITY OF CONGRESS: House of Representatives

Activity on remote proceedings for the past week fills two pages on our ongoing timeline.  Sunday was not a day of rest, as the New Dems Coalition sent a second letter to House Leadership, urging them to bring a remote voting resolution to the floor no later than May 4 (today).  

Continue reading “Continuity of Congress Play-By-Play For The Week Ending May 2, 2020.”