Rules Changes Must Allow for More Open Process in the House

Posted January 6, 2009 at 1:18pm

President-elect Barack Obama has some huge assets to bring to bear as he tries to rapidly enact an enormously ambitious agenda that includes a huge stimulus package and major health care reform. His sweeping election victory has been followed by a sky-high approval rating as his inauguration approaches. He had major league coattails, with his party moving to comfortable majorities in both chambers of Congress, the best numbers since Bill Clinton assumed the presidency in 1993.

[IMGCAP(1)]But one thing we have learned from the past couple of decades of largely dysfunctional politics is that numbers can be deceiving. The experience Clinton had, with nearly 260 Democrats in the House and 58 in the Senate when he entered office, was a two-year nightmare. Republicans refused to give him any votes in either chamber for his economic recovery package, and they managed to embarrass him on his crime bill and devastate him on his health reform plan, since Clinton could not find the votes or support he needed from his own party alone.

Obama has learned from the Clinton experience, and his own encounters with the continuing dysfunction in Congress have sensitized him to the need to work across party lines if he wants to get anything major done. He has reached out to House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) even as he has plotted strategy and discussed substance with his own team leaders, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). His assertive efforts to work across the aisle have already changed the tone a good deal, and a number of Republicans who are eager to participate in the policymaking process are making it clear that they believe they can do business with the president-elect.

It is going to take more than this great start, though, to erase the “dys” from dysfunction. In both chambers, and for both parties, there are serious steps to take to make the process fairer and more workable. Let’s start with the House. As I write this, the majority Democrats are poised to present a rules package that will make some significant changes; the most significant, probably, is to change the rules regarding motions to recommit.

I have written frequently over the past few years about these motions, including a lot during the 110th Congress about the way the language of the motions, using the parliamentary distinction between the terms “promptly” and “forthwith,” moved us far from the intended use of motions to recommit — to allow the minority a clean chance to offer an alternative on every bill. Instead, the language was manipulated by the minority to create ways to embarrass the majority or to kill bills through indirection.

The change in language the Democrats are proposing would, I believe, clean up the process and remove some of the nonsense by providing that chance for the minority. But I support it only with conditions, serious conditions. The House majority has to accompany this rules change with a commitment to open up the amendment process far more than we have seen in the past two years, both in committees and on the floor. The minority party deserves chances to participate in the debate on bills and to offer its own ideas without having them quashed or rejected summarily. The penchant for closed rules, far too prevalent in the 110th Congress, has to be curbed.

Some of the bills with closed or modified closed rules emerged that way because of the paucity of amendments offered by Republicans other than some extreme, nongermane or off-the-wall ones coming from a handful of more rigid ideologues. But that is also no excuse. Pelosi and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) have to push their committee chairmen to seek out ideas and amendments from more Republicans, and the Republicans who want to offer ideas and alternatives, who include a substantial number of brainy and creative lawmakers such as Reps. Tom Petri (Wis.), Fred Upton (Mich.), Jo Ann Emerson (Mo.), Zach Wamp (Tenn.), Mike Castle (Del.), John Shadegg (Ariz.), Mike Pence (Ind.), Paul Ryan (Wis.) and others, have to be given opportunities and outlets for their ideas.

At the same time, the committee process and the conference process have to be given more prominent roles in the 111th Congress. There is some urgency to deal with a major economic stimulus package to jump-start the economy before deflation rears its ugly head. But if a trillion-dollar package making sweeping changes in tax policy, health policy, energy policy and nearly everything else is put together without some serious input by committees, and especially if it does not have some kind of open process to reconcile differences between the House and Senate, it will not start us off in the right way to build genuine bipartisan deliberation.

It is the nature of the House to give a big advantage to a majority party, much more than in the Senate. The majority is going to prevail far more often than not. Given robust enough numbers, it can often prevail on its own — indeed, the House Republicans for a while, with a slender majority, managed to prevail with virtually no support from Democrats. But the health of the political process will not itself stay robust for long if a majority opts to steamroll over the minority. The late, great Sen. Pat Moynihan (D-N.Y.) was right when he said that to achieve major change in social policy, broad bipartisan consensus is required.

We have a pressing need to engage critical issues such as health, climate change, Social Security and retirement security, global competitiveness, the nation’s defense profile and our economic crisis. The best way to do that is to build assiduously a Congress that relies on the regular order as its regular order, that gives input to the widest range of lawmakers, that bends over backwards to be fair, that values transparency, and that has a majority party unafraid to lose every once in a while on the floor. If we move significantly in that direction, the rule streamlining and simplifying the motion to recommit will be well worth it.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.