House Rules Spark Fight

Posted January 7, 2003 at 6:45pm

Moving swiftly to strengthen their power in the wake of major Republican victories in the midterm elections, House GOP leaders kicked off the first day of the 108th Congress with passage of a sweeping rules package that left Democrats fuming.

Tuesday began with the pageantry of new Members being sworn into office and the re-election of Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), but quickly devolved into partisanship as Democrats accused the majority of using underhanded tactics to further its advantage beyond the 229-205 lead Republicans hold in the chamber.

“It’s outrageous,” said Democratic Caucus Chairman Bob Menendez (D-N.J.). “This is no way to start the Congress. It does not show the spirit of bipartisanship.”

Republicans denied the charges, arguing that they were simply trying to make the House operations more efficient and had bent over backwards to be fair to Democrats by keeping the committees’ ratios at their current numbers.

“Every Congress there’s a refreshing of the rules,” said GOP Conference Chairwoman Deborah Pryce (Ohio). “Time changes and our work changes and it’s incumbent on us to make this as an efficient place as possible.

“If we were trying to grab more power, we would have changed the committee ratios — the Speaker was really trying his best to be as fair as possible.”

The rules package included expected changes such as the elimination of the eight-year term limit on the Speaker, which had been instituted by Republicans in 1995, as well as the creation of a new Select Homeland Security Committee that will oversee the new federal agency.

But the rules package, which passed on a party-line vote and included nearly 30 changes, also included some last-minute surprises, including a provision weakening limits on the types of gifts that Members can receive from lobbyists.

Democrats were particularly irate about a provision creating tougher hurdles for Democrats to move bills and propose alternatives to GOP plans. Democrats were upset about another provision keeping last year’s budget in place until Congress can pass a conference report on this year’s spending blueprint. Congress was unable to agree on a budget plan last year and failed to pass 11 of the 13 appropriations bills.

“Basically, the Republicans talked when they took over in 1995 about fairness and opening up the process, and now one by one they are closing down the process and revising or eliminating the changes they made,” said Rep. Martin Frost (D-Texas), ranking member of the Rules panel.

“They are hypocrites,” he added. “That’s the point. There’s no nice way to say that.”

Republicans countered that the GOP was given far fewer privileges and opportunities to participate when Democrats were in charge of the chamber. After seven years in charge, Republicans said they have figured out how best to run the House and formulated a rules package that improves deliberation and accountability.

“It took us some time to learn about the process of government, so I admit there are some modifications we have made,” said Rules Chairman David Dreier (R-Calif.).

The fireworks came amid predictions that the House will grow only more polarized because of the elevation of a tough conservative, Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas), to the Majority Leader post, and the election of a strident liberal, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), to the Minority Leader post.

Before the fracas over the rules package, Members underwent the traditional ceremonial moments that mark the first day. Hastert was formally elected to another term as Speaker with 228 votes, gaining the support of his full Conference. Hastert did not vote for himself, instead voting “present.”

Pelosi broke with tradition and voted for herself, receiving 201 votes. As expected, three Southern conservatives in the Democratic Caucus — Reps. Ralph Hall (Texas), Ken Lucas (Ky.) and Charles Stenholm (Texas) — voted “present” rather than support Pelosi for Speaker.

One Democrat — Rep. Gene Taylor (Miss.) — voted for Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) for the post.

Late in the day, Republican lawmakers and aides charged that Pelosi was to blame for starting the new Congress off on a partisan note. They accused her of giving a long-winded, self-serving speech and breaking the tradition of deference to the Speaker by voting for herself.

“At least Gephardt had some class,” one Republican aide snapped. “If this is the precedent she is going to set, then it’s going to be very tough to work with her.”

In the rules package, Republicans moved to relax rules on what types of gifts Members can receive, including allowing unlimited amounts of food and beverages to be delivered to Members’ offices. Another provision did away with bans on reimbursements to Members for participating in charity events.

Common Cause’s Matt Keller said the proposed changes would create loopholes “big enough to drive a delivery truck through.”

But Hastert spokesman John Feehery defended the move to allow charities to pay for lawmakers’ travel expenses when they are related to the charities’ events.

“The leaders want to help charities, and a lot of these charities need some kind of star power to headline their events and want Members to do that,” Feehery said.

Democrats also cried foul over a budget provision allowing tax writers to use “dynamic scoring” when determining the implications of legislation. Dynamic Scoring factors future economic growth into the cost of a bill.

One top Democratic aide characterized the change as “institutionalizing fuzzy math to hide the fact that they’ve driven America back into debt” with GOP economic policies.

“I thought the Arthur Andersen accounting firm had been dissolved,” added Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.).

But Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) countered: “I find it interesting that they believe that there are no new ideas in economics. I find it difficult to comprehend that Democrats truly believe that tax cuts will have no behavioral effects no matter how big they are.”

New Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said the rules changes are somewhat ironic, given the griping from Republicans when they first took over in 1995.

“They are reversing the positions taken by the Republicans in 1995 when they said Democrats were autocratic and undemocratic,” he said. “I guess they decided to be autocratic and undemocratic.”

Hoyer pointed to the GOP desire to reinstate the “Gephardt” rule, which allows Congress to increase the debt ceiling in the budget resolution without a separate vote.

While most Republicans favored the change, not all were on board.

Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) called the move “terrible,” saying, “I think we need to take every opportunity to shame us all into curtailing spending. We should have to face that vote. I voted for [increasing the debt limit] last time, but that doesn’t mean we should make it easy for ourselves.”

Amy Keller contributed to this report.