If the tone set on opening day could determine the success of Congress over the next two years, the scaffolding now encasing the Capitol dome would become a magical power grid of peace and harmony generating a steady source of national policy solutions.
When the opening bell summons the new Congress into session at noon, the House chamber vibrates with electricity as multitudes of members meld in a frenzy of hugs, handshakes, backslaps and laughter. The camaraderie and exchange of verbal olive branches between the speaker and minority leader can only instill hope in the scores of constituents cramming the galleries to watch their newly elected representatives be sworn in. Surely, they think, this portends a new day in our nation’s history. And they’re right: Each new Congress is a blank slate on which it can write its own history of successes and failures.
While this glorious spectacle of democratic renewal is always heartening, the tone set on opening day should not be mistaken for the tune that will eventually play-out. Yes, the founders called it a Congress, meaning “a coming together,” but they fully understood it would not be a harmonic convergence of views, goals and policies. Not only did they grasp that any democratically-elected institution would produce a clashing of interests, they purposely divided responsibilities among the branches to prevent a concentration of power in any one place. As Madison put it in Federalist 51, “ambition must be made to counteract ambition.”
The framers did not fully appreciate that in addition to the Constitution’s separation of powers and attendant checks and balances, political parties would emerge as an additional check on action. That has been especially evident under divided party government which has been the norm for 40 of the last 60 years.
Notwithstanding all the upbeat opening day bonhomie and hoopla, the parties go their separate ways on the two most important votes members will cast: the election of Speaker and the adoption of House rules for the new Congress. The former vote is a recognition that the Speaker, while historically serving as the neutral presiding officer of the House, has also been the majority party’s leader almost since parties first emerged.
The latter vote is a recognition that the majority party fashions rules that allow the will of a House majority eventually to prevail on legislation. Translated, that usually means the rules are designed to expedite consideration and adoption of the majority party’s legislative agenda.
Ironically, the debate on adopting rules for the new House has become a perfunctory slam-dunk, subject to just one-hour of debate and no amendments unless the minority happens to prevail on a procedural vote to commit the resolution with instructions to amend – which it never does.
George B. Galloway, in his 1962 Legislative Reference Service history of the House, recounts how, in the years after the Civil War, it was not unusual for a new House to spend several days debating and amending the rules package recommended by the Rules Committee. In that way, new members could learn the work ways of the institution while senior members could take their measure. That changed with the emergence of party governance in the 1890s and the takeover of the rules origination process by the majority party caucus before a Rules Committee is even appointed.
Those following opening day proceedings on C-SPAN may be baffled that the House chamber and galleries empty immediately after members are sworn-in by the Speaker. The extra television lights are extinguished, and only a handful of members remain in the dimly lit chamber to present and debate the resolution adopting rules for the new Congress. Everyone else has retreated to swearing-in receptions in members’ offices.
It is little consolation to know that the rules from the previous Congress are being re-adopted by reference in the rules resolution with just a few new tweaks. Even though those rules, developed over decades, provide for a "regular order" process of thoughtful, fair and orderly consideration of legislation, they are not self-executing. Instead they have been openly flouted for years through leadership-driven procedural suspensions, interventions and circumventions.
Unfortunately, most members today were not around three and four decades ago when the regular order was regularly observed. However, even if they remained in the chamber for the rules debate they would learn nothing about the old rules being brought forward. Most of the debate will focus instead on the minor new tweaks.
The House would be far better off to postpone consideration of the rules package until day two when all members can participate in an extended discussion of just what the regular order of rules is and why it is so important to learn and adhere to. Obviously, that will require a leadership led effort of reeducation and rededication of the House to a deliberative lawmaking process. But, in the final analysis, it may have as much to do with the reputation and legacy of the 114th Congress as the legislation it enacts.
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.