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Wolfensberger: New House Adopts Its Rules in the Dark

I used to hold an open house at the Wilson Center on the first day of a new Congress so staff and fellows could drop by and observe on a big screen the pomp and pageantry of the world’s greatest democratic legislature organizing itself. In addition to providing coffee and doughnuts, I put together helpful handouts and provided a running commentary on what was transpiring in the House chamber.

Being a former Rules Committee staffer, I built my presentation to the moment at which the majority leader called up the resolution to adopt House rules for the new Congress. Much to my dismay, however, I found that after the election of the speaker, his or her acceptance speech and the swearing-in of members, my Wilson audience slowly vanished. I was left alone to ponder the fine procedural points being debated and to wonder why no one else found this fascinating.

I should have known, after having served nearly three decades in the House, that my colleagues’ reaction to the rules debate was no different than that of nearly all the House members who had been on the floor just moments before. As the speaker pro tem was gaveling for order (the actual speaker had already exited stage right), the chamber was cast into near darkness. It wasn’t a power outage. It was just the dousing of all the extra klieg lights that had been installed to brighten things for network and local TV cameras that had been given special permission to televise the opening ceremonies.

As far as the television people were concerned, the speaker’s election, acceptance speech and subsequent swearing-in of members were the only matters of interest. The constituents from around the country who packed the galleries to watch their new congressmen being sworn in seemed to concur. They, too, slowly filed out and headed for swearing-in parties in the House office buildings.

Left on the floor to carry on were a handful of members and staff responsible for managing the debate on adopting House rules. No matter how contentious some of the rules changes might have been, it was always difficult for minority party members to work up a high dudgeon of protest before an empty House.

In such moments of relative quiet, I tried to imagine what it must have been like in the post-Civil War years when, according to House historian George Galloway, it was the customary practice when a new House met “to proceed under general parliamentary law, often for several days, with unlimited debate, until a satisfactory revision of former rules had been effected.” Galloway observes that on these occasions the old rules were discussed “in a leisurely, good-natured way and the meaning of the complex code of the House was explained to the new members.” It was, in short, an opportunity for new and old members to size each other up while acquainting newer members with the way the institution functions.

Contrast that leisurely socialization process with the more partisan era at the turn of the last century that set the mold for the modern House. In 1880, the Rules Committee became a standing committee with the speaker as chairman. By the 1890s, it was drafting special rules to give priority floor consideration to individual bills, even to limit floor amendments.

While the committee had previously been a select committee for the sole purpose of proposing standing rules for a new House, by 1901 it no longer did so. Any changes that were offered apparently originated with the majority leadership. All this was now done before the Rules Committee was even appointed.

In 1911, when Democrats took control of the House following the 1910 revolt against Republican Speaker Joe Cannon and his party’s subsequent loss at the polls, “Czar Speaker” was replaced by “King Caucus.” For the first time, proposed changes in House Rules originated in the majority party caucus. That practice has persisted for the last century, regardless of which party is in control.

The rules package that will be called up Thursday on the floor from the Republican Conference will follow the traditions of the past 102 years of being debated for just one hour, with no amendments unless the minority succeeds in committing the resolution to a select committee with instructions to immediately report back specific amendments. It is little wonder this near-pro forma party exercise attracts little public or member attention. It is just another in a series of party-line votes cast on opening day along with that of electing a speaker.

The House has learned over the years how to organize itself early and efficiently. Lost in transition has been the experience previously gained from engaging the entire House membership in debating the rules that will guide it for the next two years. If one wonders why there are fewer institutionalists in Congress today, this is a good place to start.

Don Wolfensberger is a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, resident scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.

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