New Rules Ignite Partisan Battles

Posted January 5, 2009 at 6:28pm

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has been sounding President-elect Barack Obama’s mantra of bipartisanship, but her rules package for the 111th Congress is already setting off bitter partisan recriminations.

Republicans are crying foul over a Democratic rewrite of House rules that will scrap GOP-authored term limits for committee chairmen and make it more difficult for the minority party to offer legislative alternatives.

Democratic leaders presented the package to their Caucus on Monday night and, pending Members’ approval, were expected to bring it to the floor for an up-or-down vote today. Republicans, now facing a nearly 81-vote deficit against Democrats, have little hope of knocking the changes down or succeeding with an alternative.

The changes could nevertheless give way to any number of parliamentary demonstrations. One of the more extreme protest ideas that floated through House conservative circles on Monday was to try to create havoc by rallying around former Energy and Commerce Chairman John Dingell (D-Mich.) for Speaker, instead of the traditional tactic of supporting their own leader, Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio).

While Republicans officially remained in the dark on the prospective changes for most of Monday, most anticipated a major change to the rules on the motion to recommit, one of the only tools that allow the minority to change legislation once it hits the House floor.

Top GOP aides were fairly certain that Democrats would eliminate the type of motions to recommit that allow Republicans to strike provisions they believe constitute a tax increase. Democrats argue that Republicans use that type of motion to recommit as a way to circumvent pay-as-you-go budgeting rules.

Senior Democrats defended the rules changes as common-sense fixes aimed at restoring order to floor proceedings and depoliticizing chairmanship races. Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), a top Pelosi confidant, said Democrats needed to restrict Republicans’ ability to offer motions to recommit because the minority abused the tactic in the previous Congress.

“They will continue to get a motion to recommit, but it will have to be a motion to recommit that’s serious,” Miller said. “It just deteriorated into a ‘gotcha’ game.”

Miller called the decision to throw out term limits “a prerogative of the majority.”

Republicans added the limits in 1995 as part of their “Contract with America,” presenting the change as a safeguard against the return of Old Bull Democratic chairmen who GOP leaders argued had been corrupted by years of consolidating power.

But senior Democratic aides argued the change ushered in a more corrupting process, whereby gavels were effectively auctioned off to the most prolific fundraisers. In a Monday letter to Pelosi objecting to the change, Boehner defended the Republican model as rewarding “new ideas, innovation, and merit rather than the strict longevity that determined chairmanships in the past.” Doing away with term limits “will entrench a handful of Members of the House in positions of permanent power, with little regard for its impact on the American people,” Boehner argued.

Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said rolling back the term limits would roll back the real change that occurred when Republicans took control of Congress more than a decade ago, and usher back in the era when chairmen created virtual “fiefdom.” “We need to look to the future and not go back to the past,” he said. Internal GOP rules limit Republican ranking members to six-year terms.

But recent history suggests that the era of committee chairmen as unchecked barons of the House is long gone.

Pelosi spent the past two years proving that — on debates from children’s health insurance to auto efficiency to the economic stimulus package approved last year — she has no problem big-footing regular order, and her committee chairmen, to impose her will on major legislation.

And chairmen can no longer count on respect for the seniority system to protect their gavels indefinitely. That was a point Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), an outspoken opponent of term limits, often made during the previous Congress, noting that chairmen must be approved by the full Caucus and can be replaced if they are deemed by their colleagues to be falling short on the job. He helped prove that argument in the days after the November elections, launching a successful challenge for the Energy and Commerce Committee gavel long held by Dingell.

Democrats are set to make a number of other procedural changes in the rules package.

On the ethics front, they are extending until the end of their terms the period during which lawmakers must report to the ethics committee any negotiations for private- sector jobs.

Democrats are also enshrining in the rules an agreement they reached with Republicans in 2007 to establish a point of order against earmarks “airdropped” into bills.

But they are striking from House rules a provision they adopted two years ago that barred the majority from holding a vote open — a response to the late-night, three-hour debacle in 2003 that Republicans engineered to pass the Medicare prescription drug benefit. A bipartisan panel last year found the reform “unworkable” after a 2007 meltdown in the House over a disputed vote.

The rules package includes several housekeeping items as well. Among other changes, it reinstates for another two years the Energy Independence and Global Warming Committee and authorizes the House to continue its lawsuit against outgoing White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten and former White House counsel Harriet Miers over their failure to comply with Congressional subpoenas.