New Restrictions on Floor Access Here to Stay

Posted February 28, 2003 at 6:18pm

If anyone thought the House Republican leadership wasn’t serious about enforcing new rules tightening access to the House floor, they might want to think again.

A female House staffer was forcibly removed from the floor recently after she disregarded the Doorkeepers’ warnings that only explicitly authorized staff are now allowed access to the chamber, sources said. With her boss in tow, she nevertheless walked onto the House floor and, according to sources, made a scene when she was told she couldn’t be there.

Rules promulgated at the beginning of the 108th Congress have created a situation in which the House Doorkeepers essentially play the part of bouncers at an exclusive club.

“Your name is not on the list? You’re not on the floor,” one Doorkeeper said.

Majority Leader Tom DeLay

(R-Texas), who has led the Conference’s effort to enforce the staffer restrictions (as well as House rules generally), said it’s part of a broader effort to encourage respect for the chamber.

“I’m trying to restore decorum to the House,” he said. “I’ve noticed over the years that we’re letting too much staff on the floor.”

DeLay noted that the changes have been well-received by Members. When he announced the changes on the House floor, he got a standing ovation, according to a Republican leadership aide.

Much of the motivation for the reinforcement came from the Members themselves. “Some senior Members and junior Members don’t want to see staff on the floor,” the aide said, adding that for many of the more junior lawmakers, it’s an issue of privilege. “They view the floor as a place for Members.”

Asked how the process has been working, the Doorkeeper responded emphatically: “Excellent.”

“If you don’t have any business on the floor, you don’t need to be on the floor,” he added. “I love it. It’s less crowded and less problems, too.”

Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) sent out a “Dear Colleague” in January reminding lawmakers about rules pertaining to decorum in the House chamber. In it he outlined rules that limit the number of staff on the floor.

Specifically, only four professional staff members and one clerk of a committee that has legislation on the floor are allowed, and all must check in with the Doorkeepers in the Speaker’s Lobby. And only one staffer per Member can be on the floor when the lawmaker has an amendment under consideration.

“Leadership staff with specific responsibilities will be admitted under a codified process. No other staff will otherwise be admitted to the floor,” the letter read.

It’s the procedures for leadership staff and others with “permanent” floor privileges that are still being worked out, according to sources familiar with the process. Meetings were held last week between Democratic and Republican staffs to discuss how many “floating” passes would go out to the top leadership offices on each side, the leadership aide said.

A badge system or list is being talked about to somehow designate certain staffers with permanent floor privileges, sources close to the process said.

Under one scenario, permanent passes would go out to chiefs of staff, policy directors, floor staff and communication directors in leadership offices, the aide said. For committees, permanent floor privileges would be granted only to staff directors. And there could be a designated number per leadership office in addition to the permanent passes.

But not everyone is happy. Privately, some Democrats and even Republicans are griping about the restricted access.

“There has been an effort solely driven by the Republicans,” a Democratic aide said. “The way it’s been conveyed to us, they would like to reduce the staff on their side of the aisle, and we are being brought into this.”

The aide added that it’s an “unworkable plan as we see it,” calling the limitations arbitrary and cumbersome.

A Republican aide wondered if the move represented a power grab by leadership staff, who would give themselves floor privileges at the expense of committee staffers.

Hastert spokesman John Feehery explained that the enforcement of staff floor privileges is just part of a larger effort that Republicans began at the beginning of the 108th to restore a sense of propriety to the chamber, calling the moves “well-received.”

“The idea is to make the House work better. The rules are there for a reason,” he said.

“These are common-sense rules that have been in place for a while,” he added. He cited as an example that Members and staff have been asked not to walk in the well in front of the chair and that “Members should be wearing a jacket,” Feehery added, something mentioned in Hastert’s “Dear Colleague.”

Around the same time as the memo reminding Members to follow protocols, Hastert also announced that 15-minute votes would mean just that, 15 minutes.

Feehery said Members were asking the leadership to “cut down on these votes, because you’re wasting a lot of time.”

Democrats took heed. In the daily e-mail from Minority Whip Steny Hoyer’s (D-Md.) office, there’s a reminder to Members and staff about the strick enforcement of 15-minute votes.

And Feehery said the effort to keep votes on time is going well.

Another decorum measure that seems to have improved is the use of mobile phones on the House floor. Long trampled on, the ban has started to be more widely respected, according to the Doorkeepers. And Members can be seen more often rushing out the chamber before they answer the call.

“They don’t use cellphones on the floor. The Members are heeding to the rules,” one Doorkeeper said.

And even though Hastert’s January missive told Members mobile phones, laptops and BlackBerry wireless e-mail devices were not to be used on the floor, BlackBerries, at least, are allowed in the chamber.

“They are part of the security arrangement,” Feehery said.