While Republicans work to assemble a House rules package for the 109th Congress, Democrats are drafting their own set of proposed procedural changes as they seek to once again make political hay over the GOP’s stewardship of the House.
For weeks, House Democrats have been discussing what rules proposals to submit when Members convene in January. In its package, the party plans to address a series of concerns about Republican management of the House, including calling for three-day required consideration of legislation before a vote.
Democrats are also exploring ways to make an issue of the recently passed GOP rule that allows indicted Members to hold leadership positions, even though guidelines for selecting leaders are traditionally determined by the parties internally rather than in House rules.
Rep. Benjamin Cardin (D-Md) — chairman of the Democrats’ Organization, Study and Review Committee, which is preparing the rules proposal — said that while no decisions have been made about the final product, the party is considering highlighting the issue of minority rights, House ethics and the permanency of the Homeland Security Committee.
Cardin acknowledged that the GOP is unlikely to embrace any aspect of the Democrats’ alternative, but he added that the minority will present its plan “in good faith” and hopes majority lawmakers will consider it.
“There will be communications with Republicans about our concerns,” Cardin said. “We hope our suggestions would be given serious consideration.”
Among the ideas Democrats are considering proposing in their rules alternative are calling for permanency of the Select Homeland Security Committee; providing Members more time to review bills; establishing fairer ratios on committees; and giving the minority opportunities to offer substitutes and alternatives to bills.
“We have a lot of ideas,” said one Democratic leadership aide. “Obviously, there are a lot of things that are really troublesome to us.”
House Democrats have been complaining loudly about the majority’s handling of the House for months, even though it has little chance of getting any of its ideas adopted into the 109th rules package. The rules are rarely written in a bipartisan process, and the Republican majority is all but assured to craft and adopt its own proposal.
The Republicans, for their part, have dismissed the Democrats’ complaints about procedure as exaggerated. They have also argued that Democrats are complaining about tactics that they themselves used frequently when they were in the majority.
Democrats recognize that the news of the first day of Congress — when Members adopt the new House rules — will be the re-election of Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
“We look at it as a reasonable first opportunity” to raise these issues, said one knowledgeable Democratic aide.
Rep. Brian Baird (D-Wash.) is pushing for an amendment that requires lawmakers to be given three days to consider legislation before casting votes. The move comes after widespread complaints by Democrats of 11th-hour consideration of key bills before House votes, ranging from Medicare to appropriations.
Baird, who has also offered a separate bill to address how legislation is considered, said that Republicans have been “overstepping” their bounds and must be called out. He said he would hope that individual Republicans would feel that they too want adequate time to review legislation before hitting the green or red button.
“It has to frustrate some of their Members when they have to vote party line on a rule that forces them to vote on a bill they haven’t read,” Baird said. “We’d be better served to have this fight — if it has to be a fight — at the start of the year so we never have to be put in the position of being forced to vote on a bill we haven’t read.”
Beyond Baird, Reps. Marty Meehan (D-Mass.) and Gene Taylor (D-Miss.) have also been working on a series of rules changes. Meehan, in particular, has submitted a far-reaching proposal to the Rules Committee that mirrors a broad minority rights bill he proposed last summer.
Meehan’s proposal includes such provisions as guaranteeing full consideration of bills and ending middle-of-the-night legislating. It also advocates reversing the GOP leadership’s indictment rule, though it remains unclear how that issue could be addressed in a House-wide rules package.
Republicans, meanwhile, are focusing on a smaller handful of rules changes for the next Congress.
The office of Rules Chairman David Dreier (R-Calif.) did not return a call seeking comment, but aides said that Dreier discussed his proposed changes at last week’s bicameral GOP leadership retreat.
While Republican Members have submitted several ideas for changing the rules, only a handful appear likely to make it into the opening-day package.
One change would make it easier for the House to consider suspension bills on Wednesdays. Currently, suspensions are usually addressed on Mondays and Tuesdays, and the House has to go through procedural hoops each Congress if it wants to allow itself to schedule suspensions on Wednesdays.
Another change would get rid of the corrections calendar, a rarely used vehicle for noncontroversial bills addressing specific federal rules or regulations.
The rules package is also likely to include a provision allowing the Speaker to postpone certain procedural votes that the current rules do not allow to be postponed.
Republicans do not expect any of these rule changes to spark controversy.
Internally, the Republican Conference has already approved a change in its own rules governing how and whether Members are granted waivers to sit on multiple committees.
At the behest of Hastert, Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) convened a special subcommittee of the Steering Committee this year to examine the issue of waivers and reduce the number of Members — currently more than 80 — who have received them.
Traditionally, Members who have been granted a waiver once have been able to keep them indefinitely. Under the new rule, a Member who wants to sit on an exclusive committee while also keeping a seat on another panel will have to reapply for a waiver every two years.
Members will also have to get the permission of the chairmen of both panels before they are granted waivers. While that change does give additional authority to panel chairmen, the final decision over any waiver still resides with the Steering Committee.
The change is designed to open up more panel seats for junior Members. It will also prevent lawmakers who currently sit on exclusive committees from also chairing a subcommittee on a nonexclusive panel, which effectively opens up those subcommittee gavels to Members for whom they would be the primary focus.
Members who currently hold an exclusive seat as well as a lesser subcommittee gavel will have their waivers grandfathered in for one Congress, giving them two years to decide how they want to proceed in the future.