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Members’ Day Revives Bipartisan Reform Fest | Procedural Politics

The House Rules Committee recently resurrected a custom first established in 1996 by then-Chairman Jerry Solomon, R-N.Y., inviting members of both parties to testify toward the end of the second session on rules changes they would like to see adopted in the next Congress.   Solomon called the hearing “Members’ Day” to connote the open-ended opportunity for any member to suggest improvements in House operations.   The hearings produced an array of proposed rules changes ranging from the ridiculous to the sublime.  It also helped affirm that some members still cared about the health and well-being of the institution — a concern that has been dwindling in recent years.   It’s much easier to bash Congress from the inside than to praise or defend it, especially given the foul mood of voters today toward government. This year, the Rules Subcommittee on Rules and Organization of the House, chaired by Rep. Rich Nugent, R-Fla., hosted the reform fest. Nugent indicated it was the first time since 2002 the hearing had been held.   It was so long ago that ranking subcommittee Democrat Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, first elected in 1996, said he had completely forgotten it had ever happened.   Nugent also made  clear twice during the hearing that it would not be taking place if it did not have the full blessing and clearance from the Republican leadership — a reminder that Rules is a leadership committee and makes no moves independently, especially as they relate to the operations of the House.   During the two-hour session on Sept. 17, the subcommittee heard from 15 witnesses (eight Republicans and seven Democrats), who found themselves agreeing more with each other and their Rules Committee interrogators, than disagreeing. Eleven other members submitted statements for the record.  The hearing was different from the highly charged partisan exchanges that usually take place in the committee’s small hearing room on the third floor of the Capitol.  McGovern didn’t grasp that at first and read a prepared opening statement blasting Republicans for their procedural unfairness and record-breaking number of closed (no-amendment) rules.   When it became apparent this would not be the usual bare-knuckled committee brawl, he spent the rest of the hearing praising the chairman and witnesses from both parties on their thoughtful contributions. Following the session, first-term Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions, R-Texas, issued a statement saying the purpose of the hearing was to provide a forum for members of both parties to offer ideas on “how we can build on the positive reforms we have put in place over the last several years.”  Sessions said his goal as chairman “is for members to play an active role in shaping the rules package for the next Congress,” and that the hearing “was an important first step in that process.”   If it were any other committee, such kudos and commitments might be taken as perfunctory nice-speak, signifying little.  Hearings are, after all, one way chairmen give their colleagues something to take credit for without having to give away the legislative store.   But the Rules Committee is a horse of a different color, not prone to making symbolic gestures, let alone to dispensing party favors across-the-aisle.   Having worked closely with the committee over nearly three decades, including serving as Solomon’s chief-of-staff when the members’ day custom began, I sensed this was a genuine first step being taken by Boehner, through Sessions, after a 12-year hiatus, to signal a more inclusive and collegial tone and direction for the next Congress.  I could be wrong. It wouldn’t the first time my optimism has outraced reality.   But I also sense that House members, reflecting public demands to end gridlock, are ready for change and that this may be the real deal. 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.