Contradictions Abound in New Rules Package

Posted January 4, 2011 at 6:35pm

Today is a big day in the House, a new era with John Boehner elected as Speaker and a new set of rules that have a real effect on the House, how it does business and how it frames and decides policy.

As the Ohio Republican prepares to take on his new role (wait, I am starting to tear up … talk amongst yourselves), I am struck by the differences and parallels with Speaker Newt Gingrich’s experience in 1995. The Georgia Republican was the conquering hero, Moses leading his tribe from 40 years of wandering in the desert to the Promised Land. He reveled in the attention, loved being on the cover of all the newsmagazines, saw himself as a parallel president and started the first week with a 100-hour “death march” to enact the “Contract With America.” That was followed by a year of conflict between Congressional Republicans and the Clinton White House, culminating in a government shutdown, and including lots of investigations and subpoenas along the way.

Boehner is starting as the anti-Gingrich (although of course he and his allies would prefer to frame it as the anti-Pelosi), avoiding the celebrations, not pushing any kind of cult of personality, trying to be somewhat self-effacing and unlike both Gingrich and Pelosi, not starting with a flurry of legislative activity. But there are lots of similarities to 1995 as well. The sense among House Republicans is that they, like Newt’s Republicans, rode in on a wave of popular support and on a clear and huge mandate — that they can be a counter-presidency collectively. They can erase or stymie Obama’s enactments and initiatives, conduct investigations to hamstring the White House and force Obama to his knees. Just not in the first week.

The first week will instead be dominated by the rules and procedures that will define the new Republican majority. During the fall campaign and the lame-duck interregnum, John Boehner gave a series of speeches making it clear that he wanted to transform the House, including moving it back toward the kind of open and deliberative body that has been absent for a long time — including, he acknowledged, during the last 12-year period of Republican rule. His decision to emphasize the rules was an interesting one, not designed to get a lot of media attention but a clear sign that he saw the rules as critically important.

The new rules package, combined with other procedural changes, is an interesting mix of commendable components and positive motives with more pernicious elements that go in a very different direction. And there are lots of contradictions and tensions among the components. These are especially apparent on the scheduling front. With the advice and backing of Greg Walden (R-Ore.) and Rob Bishop (R-Utah), Boehner and incoming Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.) decided to try to rationalize and regularize the House schedule, moving to a predictable process of four full days a week in Washington when the House is in session. The schedule will have two weeks on, one full week off to go back to the district; it will also change the schedule during the weeks on so floor votes occur only between 1 p.m. and 7 p.m., allowing committees a less fettered chunk of time to do their business.

The concept is a good one. But it leaves me queasy. I have long called for a three weeks on, one week off schedule for two reasons. The first is I want to find ways to encourage members to spend more time together, and to move their families to Washington. The best way to encourage civil discourse is for people to get to know each other as people; it is very hard to call a colleague a treasonous pig if you have spent time with his or her family on the sidelines of a kid’s soccer game. The second is to provide the long and continuous stretches of Congressional sessions that encourage real deliberation and debate, and do not provide the kinds of disincentives for the regular order that the disjointed and limited schedule has set in place.

This new schedule is actually designed to deter the former goal; it makes it much easier and less painful for Members to keep families at home. I want regularity and good family lives, but the more time Members are away, the less time they spend communicating with and getting to know their colleagues, and the more they get away from the central concept the framers had about Congress — a coming together of people from disparate places and backgrounds, able to deliberate face to face in our extended republic.

There is a concurrent promise to have much more debate, many more amendments and more appropriations bills done under open rules, but while spending dramatically less time in Washington. There is no way to make both things happen. Something has to give, and I strongly suspect it will be open debate and deliberation.

Now we come to the rules related to the budget and fiscal policy. I will have to address these fully in another column because there are many new things. But let me start by addressing the provision in the rules to deputize the chairman of the House Budget Committee to unilaterally create spending and revenue limits and caps by committee and enact them simply by publishing them in the Congressional Record.

This is breathtaking: It demolishes the Congressional budget process in one fell swoop, and it takes away the accountability, openness and deliberation that a regular budget process provides. This is the opposite of accountability; Members, by voting in lockstep to enact a package of rules, will implicitly vote for a budget they have never seen. It will be binding in the House.

When individual appropriations come up, any proposal that changes the edicts of Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) by restoring cuts in spending will be ruled out of order.  Dramatic and Draconian budget cuts without votes or debate. That is the new open and deliberative House? 

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