Politics

Good Government Groups Urge ‘Systematic Reform’ of House Rules

Demand Progress leads letter and white paper to Congress with recommended rule changes

Outside groups want the U.S. House of Representatives to overhaul its rules. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Twenty outside groups that seek to promote good government sent a letter to House lawmakers Wednesday morning, urging them to take back their individual power and overhaul the chamber’s rules. 

The letter, led by Demand Progress, outlines 10 principles that members should follow in crafting a new rules package

Groups that signed the letter include the Sunlight Foundation, Government Accountability Project, Campaign Legal Center, The OpenGov Foundation and Public Citizen, among others. Eight congressional experts also signed the letter. 

“The next few months present a rare opportunity for you to ensure that all members’ voices are heard during policy debates and that congressional offices have the tools they need to do their jobs,” the groups and experts wrote. “We believe now is the time for systemic reform.”

Demand Progress also sent lawmakers a 21-page white paper that its policy director Daniel Schuman wrote, outlining recommended rules changes that adhere to the 10 principles espoused in the letter. Schuman said his ideas come from extensive conversations with House members and staff, as well as congressional experts.

The letter noted that the signatories may not agree with every idea mentioned in the white paper but that they’re worthy of Congress’ attention. 

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Floor

The first principle calls for the House floor to be “a forum for open, informed debate on competing visions for America.”

Ideas for accomplishing that include expanding the three-day rule for posting bill text before a floor vote to include resolutions and specifying that three days actually means 72 hours. Oftentimes, the House will post a bill hours before midnight one day and vote on it early in the morning two calendar days later and say that meets the three-day rule. 

Another proposal would allow legislation that has been successfully discharged to the floor with a petition of 218 signatures to be considered on any legislative day instead of only the second and fourth Mondays of the month.

Committees 

Committees should also foster open, informed debate and be a place where members are “fully empowered and encouraged to participate on an equal footing in service of the best interests of the entire chamber,” the second principle holds.

The white paper proposes that committees be required to announce markups at least seven days in advance and that members who want to offer amendments to legislation being marked up provide drafts to their colleagues five days in advance. The amendments should be posted online for public access at least three days in advance.  

Other proposals include limiting the majority to 60 percent of a committee’s membership; adding the Intelligence panel, currently designated as a permanent select committee, to the House standing committees; and requiring all committee votes be published on a central website.

Self-organization

The third principle suggests support for members “to self-organize around shared interests” and to access House information.

The primary proposal in the white paper is to allow for Legislative Service Organizations — entities “intended to perform coordination and policymaking work for members with shared interests,” that are funded by members, with each participating individual allowed to contribute up to $10,000.

Staff 

House staff are the focus of the fourth principle, which calls for hiring and retention practices focused on “a diversity of skills, backgrounds, and expertise.”

One proposal is to allow each member to have two staff associates focused on their committee portfolios. The staff associates would be paid out of the committee budgets instead of the members’ individual accounts, but they must spend at least 80 percent of their time working on issues that fall under the committees’ jurisdiction.

The white paper also offers proposals on staff and intern pay structures and suggests member and committee staff be able to unionize. 

Ethics

The fifth principle suggests the House seek to prevent ethical conflicts and address those that arise promptly so they don’t become problems for the institution.

Proposals include granting the Office of Congressional Ethics the ability to subpoena witnesses and requiring the House Ethics Committee to impanel an investigatory subcommittee if it wants to halt an OCE investigation.

When members under investigation by the Ethics Committee resign or their terms end, the panel’s investigation also comes to a close, and it never releases a report on its findings. The white paper proposes that committees can release such reports if their investigations are “substantially completed” when the members depart. 

Support offices

Transparency in House support offices, which should “be responsive to the will of the House,” is the focus of the sixth principle. 

Proposals include making regularly recurring reports on activities of support offices — such as the Clerk, Chief Administrative Office and Sergeant-at-Arms — available online; establishing  a nonpartisan Whistleblower Ombudsman office; and creating a position of House chief data officer.

Technology

Modern technology is needed to support the House’s oversight, legislative and constituent service responsibilities, according to the seventh principle.

The white paper proposes creating a nonpartisan Congressional Digital Service to oversee and develop House technologies, such as constituent relations, legislative information management and information sharing tools. It also suggests establishing a chief transparency officer to help member and committee offices make more information available to the public. 

Electronic security

The eighth principle touts the importance of electronic security and protecting information members and staff use in their various capacities from unwanted access.

Ideas include separating the Chief Administration Office into two separate offices, one responsible for physical security measures and the other for electronic security measures; and formalizing a House cybersecurity working group.

Continuity in transition

The ninth principle calls for continuity in constituent services when there are transitions among House members. The 115th Congress saw several members leave office early for various reasons, including accepting administration appointments and getting caught up in sexual misconduct scandals. 

The white paper suggests outgoing members provide notice to constituents about their options to continue casework with new offices.

‘Continuously renew’

“The House must continuously renew itself and study new approaches to its operations,” the tenth principle reads. 

“Consider convening a Joint Committee on the Operations of Congress to explore improving congressional operations and strengthening the work of the legislative support offices and agencies,” the white paper suggests.

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