July 29, 2014 SIGN IN | REGISTER

Weak Committees Empower the Partisans

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Put this data together and you get the picture: More bills are being brought to the floor without the benefit of committee hearings, amendments or reports, primarily because they are party-driven. The fact that amendments are prohibited on most is further evidence that they are being presented as party policy statements for up-or-down votes and not as serious legislative endeavors to be perfected through committee and floor amendments.

I call these “bumper sticker” bills because they are convenient campaign devices that enable Members to register their concern (or outrage) on the record, even if it’s clear the bills will never become law.

Examples of these unreported, no-amendment bills abound in the House this session, including repealing the 2010 health care overhaul (without a promised replacement), abolishing the presidential campaign fund, defunding NPR and Planned Parenthood and voting on four war powers options on Libya. Equally noteworthy are the unreported bills that do succeed, such as the omnibus continuing appropriations bill and the debt limit deal — both negotiated in private by party leaders, not through committees. (Now, on to the supra-committee.)

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) came into office with the intention of restoring regular order by giving committees a greater measure of independence and responsibility, and he has succeeded to some extent. However, he has also found that good intentions can be sidetracked by public opinion, internal party factions and pressure groups that demand immediate action without the benefit of committee consideration.

In fairness, more than two-thirds of major bills are still reported by committees, along with explanatory reports. However, the deviations from regular order that do occur tend to exacerbate partisan warfare and diminish committee authority. Reversing this trend can go a long way to restoring integrity to policymaking.

Don Wolfensberger is a Congressional scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, a visiting scholar with the Bipartisan Policy Center and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.

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