House Members Seek Rules Changes on Ousting Speaker, Moments of Silence

Rules Committee hears ideas from members as it considers changes for 115th Congress

One House rules change under consideration would target the process the House Freedom Caucus used to pressure former Speaker John Boehner to resign. (Bill Clark/Roll Call/Pool)
One House rules change under consideration would target the process the House Freedom Caucus used to pressure former Speaker John Boehner to resign. (Bill Clark/Roll Call/Pool)
Posted September 14, 2016 at 3:22pm

House members, frustrated by events such as conservatives’ effort to oust former Speaker John A. Boehner and congressional inaction after multiple mass shootings, proposed changes to the Rules Committee Wednesday to prevent such scenarios from occurring in the 115th Congress. 

Wednesday’s discussion on House rules that should be amended for the next Congress follows an April hearing on proposed changes to the appropriations process. Rules and Organization of the House Subcommittee Chairman Steve Stivers, R-Ohio, said that he may hold another hearing, but that at a minimum he plans to continue discussing ideas with his colleagues.

“Rules packages [are] typically released in the December, January time frame, and then we’ll vote on it when we come back,” he said, referring to the start of the next Congress in January. “It’s one of the first things that we have to do, is the rules.”

Only six members testified on Wednesday, but others submitted proposals for the record.

One of the ideas presented at the hearing was to change the process for calling up a motion to vacate, the procedure the House Freedom Caucus had threatened to use to force a vote on whether to oust Boehner as speaker. Boehner ultimately resigned before the Freedom Caucus called for a floor vote on the motion.

The proposed change, offered by Rep. Devin Nunes, would end the privileged status of the motion to vacate that allows any member to call up the motion for a vote at any time. The California Republican is proposing that instead the majority or minority caucus must vote on the motion and that a majority of the caucus must approve it before it can be called up for a floor vote.

“We know the turmoil that can be created with a huge leadership vacuum in the Congress,” Nunes said. 

Rules Committee members Bradley Byrne, R-Ala., and Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., said they liked the idea. 

“I think it allows members to effect change but not be so disruptive to the institution,” Newhouse said.

[House Caucus Rules Could Change for 114th Congress]

While Nunes’s proposal seems like it has a shot of winning the support of the leadership-appointed Rules Committee, another idea that is less likely to go anywhere — unless Democrats retake the majority — is a proposal from Rep. Tony Cárdenas to force congressional hearings after gun violence tragedies.

The California Democrat is proposing that every moment of silence observed on the House floor after a gun violence tragedy would be required to be followed up by a hearing within 10 legislative days. Under the proposal, the speaker would designate the appropriate committee or subcommittee to conduct the hearing. 

“All of these moments of silence have at least one thing in common: they were not followed by meaningful actions or at least hearings in the House,” Cárdenas said of moments of silence on mass shootings like the one in June at an Orlando night club. 

He said the proposed rules change would not require legislation, “just an honest, open, transparent discussion about public safety.”

Newhouse pointed out that police investigations often last longer than 10 days and for that reason, Congress may not have complete facts within the proposed time frame for holding a hearing. Cárdenas said he believes the time frame is adequate and argued that the hearing needs to occur while it’s still fresh on members’ minds. 

[Order in the House]

Another long-shot, if Republicans keep control of the House, is a request from Madeleine Z. Bordallo of Guam that delegates and resident commissioners from the U.S. territories and the District of Columbia be granted the ability to cast votes on the House floor. This rule existed while Democrats were in the majority, but Republicans eliminated it.

Bordallo said the move would be purely symbolic and that in the event the delegates’ votes would have an impact on the outcome, their votes would be removed from the total or the House could revote without them. Having the ability to vote would allow delegates to be accountable to their constituents, she said. 

Newhouse asked why the delegates need the ability to vote on the floor when they can cast votes in committee. Bordallo responded that without being present for floor votes, delegates are missing out on a key opportunity to get to know their colleagues. 

Virginia Republican Morgan Griffith offered a proposal to require that Senate bills coming to the House be subject to Senate rules, meaning 60 percent of House members would be required to support bringing up a bill for a vote and that any House member could put an anonymous hold on a measure. 

The proposal is a bit of reverse psychology designed to get senators to change their own rules, which have led to hundreds of House bills being stalled or blocked by the upper chamber. 

“I think they would understand the frustration and there would be a good lesson,” Griffith said. 

Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Fla., proposed a rule to exclude Army Corps of Engineers water projects form the House earmark ban, arguing that constituents are frustrated that all members of Congress can do to secure these projects for their districts is write a strongly worded letter.

While the earmark ban was designed stop bad actors, Rooney said he doesn’t see his proposal leading to inappropriate behavior since Army Corps projects are not subject to competitive grants. It’s now up to the administration how to spend the money, and Congress should reclaim that power, he argued. 

“To me this just seemed like the easiest toe in the water,” Rooney said. 

Nunes also offered a proposal that he says would help Congress better exert its power of the purse. He suggested that the House restructure its committees to combine the panels that authorize policies with those that appropriate money for those policies.

[Democrats Expect Sit-In Ban on House Floor]

While there are multiple ways the committees could be structured to accomplish this goal, Nunes suggested a group of about eight to 10 “A” committees that would have both authorizing and appropriating power for a specific policy area, like defense. Every member would serve on one of the A committees. Members could have a second committee assignment on a “B” committee that didn’t deal with authorizing programs and appropriating money for them.

“It would make this place a lot more efficient,” Nunes said, adding that members would also have a lot more buy in and that it would foster more bipartisan cooperation.

The proposal would ensure that the executive branch could no longer ignore the authorizing committees and simply bring their requests to appropriators, and would make it easier for Congress to eliminate ineffective programs, Nunes argued. 

“The odds would be higher” that appropriations bills would move through Congress, he added. 

The Rules Committee members seemed intrigued by the proposal, although it seems unlikely to be something Congress would quickly embrace.