My previous column left some readers in a state of suspended agitation because I praised the revival of the Members’ Day congressional reform hearing in the Rules Committee (after a 12 year hiatus), but failed to discuss any of the specific proposals recommended. Hopefully this account will douse the ire, though it doesn't begin to cover all the proposals submitted by the 28 members who offered testimony. Rep. Cynthia M. Lummis, R-Wyo., said many of the ideas presented at the hearing grew out of ad hoc gatherings she convened with Republican colleagues beginning last May. Lummis focused her testimony on structural reforms of the appropriations process, paying special attention to the routine violation of the House rule prohibiting appropriations for unauthorized items. It has become customary for the Rules Committee to waive the requirement that appropriations have prior authorization in law for that year. Although defense appropriations are the biggest recurring example of this, she proposes holding spending to previous year levels if authorizations are not enacted prior to consideration of their appropriations bills. Rep. Kevin Yoder, R-Kan., also flagged this rule violation in a statement submitted for the record. He cited the most recent annual report by the Congressional Budget Office on “Unauthorized Appropriations and Expiring Authorizations” indicating that for the current fiscal year, roughly $302 billion has been appropriated for 270 expired laws. Several other witnesses raised the same concern, underscoring just how broken the authorization-appropriations process has become. Yoder indicated he is working with another group of members on this and other reforms. Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., the immediate past president of the Republican Study Committee, an informal caucus of conservatives, testified in favor of re-establishing regular accounts for what are now called Congressional Member Organizations like the RSC. When Republicans took control of the House in 1995, they abolished what were then called Legislative Service Organizations, some of which had separate office space and accounts for staff and supplies. While there were only 28 LSOs at the time they were terminated, today there are 336 CMOs which may pay any shared staff out of their members’ office accounts. Scalise says these month-to-month arrangements lead to a confusing and unstable status for many CMO staffers. Although several other witnesses voiced support for Scalise’s proposal, what was not clear from his testimony was where the funds to support the new system would come from. The Republicans' justification for doing away with LSOs in 1995 was that they often looked like taxpayer-funded, in-House lobby shops for special interests. Democratic Rep. Jim Cooper of Tennessee testified in favor of enacting the original “No Budget, No Pay” concept that would suspend members’ pay for every day after Oct. 1 that Congress has not completed final action on a budget resolution and all 12 regular appropriations bills. A modified version was enacted for 2013 that let members off the pay dock once the two houses adopted different budget resolutions, even though they were never reconciled. Democratic Reps. Jackie Speier of California and David Cicilline of Rhode Island, respectively, called for mandatory sexual harassment and ethics training for members. Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, on the other hand, testified in favor of doing away with the ethics rule requiring members to pay the full cost of chartering a private plane if they used one to get around their districts. Democratic Rep. Eric Swalwell of California, on the other hand, prefers a no-fly exemption from coming to Washington early each week to cast floor votes on minor bills. He proposes instead that members be allowed to vote electronically from their districts. It is fair to say the proposals offered run the gamut from those that address big-picture, institutional problems to those that would make members’ lives less complicated and more comfortable –from the reformers to the recliners. Correction 10:35 a.m. An earlier version of this article misstated the number of years that Members’ Day had been on hiatus.
Don Wolfensberger is a resident scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.