April 17, 2014 SIGN IN | REGISTER

Wolfensberger: New House Adopts Its Rules in the Dark

Contrast that leisurely socialization process with the more partisan era at the turn of the last century that set the mold for the modern House. In 1880, the Rules Committee became a standing committee with the speaker as chairman. By the 1890s, it was drafting special rules to give priority floor consideration to individual bills, even to limit floor amendments.

While the committee had previously been a select committee for the sole purpose of proposing standing rules for a new House, by 1901 it no longer did so. Any changes that were offered apparently originated with the majority leadership. All this was now done before the Rules Committee was even appointed.

In 1911, when Democrats took control of the House following the 1910 revolt against Republican Speaker Joe Cannon and his party’s subsequent loss at the polls, “Czar Speaker” was replaced by “King Caucus.” For the first time, proposed changes in House Rules originated in the majority party caucus. That practice has persisted for the last century, regardless of which party is in control.

The rules package that will be called up Thursday on the floor from the Republican Conference will follow the traditions of the past 102 years of being debated for just one hour, with no amendments unless the minority succeeds in committing the resolution to a select committee with instructions to immediately report back specific amendments. It is little wonder this near-pro forma party exercise attracts little public or member attention. It is just another in a series of party-line votes cast on opening day along with that of electing a speaker.

The House has learned over the years how to organize itself early and efficiently. Lost in transition has been the experience previously gained from engaging the entire House membership in debating the rules that will guide it for the next two years. If one wonders why there are fewer institutionalists in Congress today, this is a good place to start.

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

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