Is there hope for the House?
© Greg Nash

In following the election of House Speakers in recent years, it is hard to overlook the common thread of their acceptance speeches: All vow to return to the regular order, restore the committee system, and give members greater latitude to participate in the legislative process. Party leaders are not above acknowledging the obvious: the House in recent years has been too leadership-driven, at the expense of member and committees prerogatives. 

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Despite these opening day promises to return to regular lawmaking, the fabric soon unravels and the House again becomes entangled in the chaos of authorization logjams, policy-laden appropriations bills, Senate unresponsiveness to House initiatives, and lack of conference committees to resolve differences between the two bodies. Budget deadlines are missed, money bills wither on the vine, unpicked — it all inevitably leads to a last-minute crush to cram everything into unread, omnibus legislation as the express ticket out of town, one step ahead of the law (whatever might be in it). 

 

It’s not that leaders are insincere or deceptive in their opening remarks. It’s simply that the best laid plans of leaders and followers alike go awry in the intervening clash of cultures involving members, committees and leadership. Given the historical trend of declining committees, as leaders gained dominance, members have become more inclined to shift their attention from their authorizing committee responsibilities toward constituent service and more floor amendments, especially on appropriations bills. 

Leaders have tried to avert the trend by barring all — or most — floor amendments on major legislation of importance to the party. To compensate for such closed amendment rules, the leadership has allowed the gates to remain relatively wide open to policy “limitation” amendments on appropriations bills — at least until last year, when structured rules were introduced by the GOP leadership specifying which amendments could be offered on the floor. 

Moreover, the Appropriations subcommittees have become more pro-active in including clear legislative provisions in their money bills, contrary to House rules. They get away with this by a wink and a nod, and sometimes direct request, from authorizing committee chairmen, who cannot — or will not — bring their own bills to the floor, and then by protection from the Rules Committee against points of order that otherwise would automatically jettison the offending provisions from a bill.

It’s little wonder that in recent years the House has not been able to get beyond passing just six or so of its 12 regular appropriations bills before shutting down floor consideration and awaiting the need for a continuing resolution (CR), around the first of the fiscal year. The latest CR has been extended to April 28, seven months late, to allow the new administration to weigh in on its spending priorities.

Do we have any reason to believe Speaker Paul RyanPaul RyanNew Dem message doesn’t mention Trump Intelligence authorization fails in House Overnight Finance: Dems roll out 'Better Deal' economic agenda | Regulators mull changes to 'Volcker Rule' | Gingrich, small biz launch tax cut campaign MORE’s Jan. 3 pledge this year to restore the authorizing committees, rely on more conference committees, and finish the appropriations process on time will turn out any different from similar pledges made when he was first elected Speaker back on Oct. 29, 2015?

Actually, we do, thanks to a little noticed addition to House Rules adopted on opening day this year.

That provision complements the existing requirement that committees adopt oversight agendas for the new Congress by Feb. 15, by also requiring them to adopt authorization agendas listing which laws need to be reauthorized, along with a timeline for doing so. 

Yes, it’s just one more rule in a House full of failed, violated, ignored and waived rules and deadlines, but it does provide leadership with a new handle on which to leverage committee action. Unless committees get back to doing the work expected of them, the burden will continue to shift disproportionately to the Appropriations Committee and ultimately to the leadership to pull Congress’s coals from the fire at the eleventh hour —always a charry mess.

 

Don Wolfensberger is a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center and Bipartisan Policy Center, and former staff director of the House Rules Committee. The views expressed are solely his own.


The views of Contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.