In their first major legislative action as the incoming majority party, Democrats unveiled a House rules package for the 110th Congress on Wednesday that includes a number of significant changes to how the chamber operates, as well as some proposals weaker than what they promised to enact on the campaign trail.
Democratic leaders immediately touted the package as a major victory in changing the way lawmakers move legislation and conduct business with lobbyists and outside interests, but their Republican counterparts spent most of Wednesday attacking the new rules and the Democratic leadership for failing to make good on their rhetoric.
The rules package includes a number of reforms to current lobbying and ethics standards, but it also changes a broad range of internal processes unique to the House.
Democrats backed away in some instances from drastically changing the way legislation moves to and through the House floor, but the rules package does include some new guidelines.
For instance, Democratic leaders introduced legislation last February, the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act, that would have limited the time allotted any electronic vote on the floor to 20 minutes unless the minority party agreed to an extension.
This provision was in response to the historic 2003 Medicare prescription drug bill vote, which was held open by Republicans for nearly three hours to secure the votes to pass the legislation. Tactics taken on the floor during that vote resulted in an ethics inquiry and subsequent admonishments of former Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and Rep. Candice Miller (R-Mich.) and became a cornerstone of the Democratic message on why new leadership was needed in the House.
However, the rules package offered Wednesday is far less specific than the February proposal, stating only that electronic votes “shall not be held open for the sole purpose of reversing the outcome of such vote,” and gives the minority no rights in deciding whether a vote can be held open beyond the usual 15 minutes.
Similarly, Democrats promised in the past to provide at least a 24-hour time period for rank-and-file members to review certain legislation and conference reports before a House floor vote. This proposal also was in response to what became a regular practice in the GOP majority to hold floor votes on massive legislative packages only hours after they have been dropped in the chamber.
Yet Wednesday’s rules package does not set out specific time periods and mandates that bill managers “should endeavor to ensure” that conference meetings and reports are conducted in an open manner — a loosely written rule that Republicans argued does not bind Democrats to the same standard they promised.
Also contained in the rules package is a bundled series of closed, self-executing rules on several pieces of legislation in the Democrats’ first agenda for the first 100 hours of the session.
It is unusual to include such procedural moves in the opening-day rules package, and the gambit allows Democrats to bring up legislation on national security provisions, raising the minimum wage, stem-cell research, and Medicare Part D reform without individual rule votes for each bill.
While the inclusion circumvents regular order in the committee process, Democratic leaders maintain that they will adhere to regular order practices when the 100-hours agenda is fulfilled.
Incoming Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) argued that the outcome of the 2006 elections was justification enough to move those bills as soon as possible. “We view the first 100 hours, essentially, as a mandate from the American people,” he told reporters.
In an ironic twist, a group of Republicans took a page out of Speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) playbook and said Wednesday that they would reintroduce the Democrats’ “Minority Bill of Rights” as their own.
When asked why Republicans were now endorsing proposals they long ignored, incoming Chief Deputy Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) conceded the GOP had erred last year.
“In hindsight, I think [Pelosi] was right,” Cantor told reporters, adding that Pelosi is now the one ignoring the resolution, which would require more specific minority rights to control the floor, including the 24-hour requirement to review bills and conference reports.
Yet not all of the Democrats’ rules changes have sparked Republican ire. GOP aides conceded that provisions included in the package to institute pay as you go budget reforms and extend earmark reform language would muster some Republican support as stand-alone measures. But rule package votes historically tend to fall on strict party lines, and Friday’s anticipated vote should be no exception.
As a sign that Democrats on the Government Reform Committee will be taking advantage of their oversight responsibilities, the rules package also includes a provision to authorize the panel to broaden its deposition authority of certain staff members of the committee.
Democrats also are reverting certain committees back to their favored names, replacing much of what the GOP did when they took over. For instance, Education and the Workforce will now be Education and Labor; International Relations will now be Foreign Affairs; Resources will now be Natural Resources; Science will now be Science and Technology; and Government Reform will now be Oversight and Government Reform.
The House and Senate also agreed to both maintain 12 subcommittees on the powerful Appropriations panel, again reversing a GOP-led reform in the 109th Congress to reduce subcommittees and alter jurisdictions. The most significant change in the Appropriations structure will be the addition of a previously nonexistent subcommittee on financial services.
The House will start debate on the rules package today, and final passage is slated for Friday in anticipation of the 100-hours agenda, which begins next Tuesday.