Democrats are calling on C-SPAN to cover more of the late-night proceedings of the House Rules Committee, a sharply divided panel whose decisions often determine the shape of debate on the House floor.
Democrats argue that the public is usually unaware of how much the Republican-controlled panel dictates the amendments or substitute bills that make it to the House floor and how those decisions ultimately determine law. Much of the majority party’s vast sway over the legislative process emanates from the 13-member panel.
“There is no major piece of legislation that goes to the House floor without the committee’s input and sometimes extensive manipulation,” Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) and the three other Rules Committee Democrats wrote to C-SPAN President and CEO Brian Lamb on Tuesday. “Giving the American people a chance to see this little known and little understood part of their democracy at work is crucial to C-SPAN’s mission.”
A spokeswoman for C-SPAN said the network would take the letter into consideration.
“Hearings are central to C-SPAN’s mission,” she said. “They will continue to be important.”
Coincidentally, the cable network plans to cover today’s Rules Committee hearing on ethics reform. It also sent a camera crew to a press conference that the panel’s Democrats held yesterday to unveil a rules reform package.
But a spokesman for Slaughter said television news crews rarely cover the panel’s partisan machinations, which typically take place in a cramped room on the third floor of the Capitol, often late in the evening.
“It is rare for any camera to make an appearance in the Rules Committee,” the spokesman said.
Although the House rules call for 24 hours’ notice of any committee meeting, Republican House leaders often convene the Rules Committee with a few hours’ notice under emergency proceedings. Many meetings occur after normal business hours to report out a rule swiftly so that a bill may move to the floor.
The Democrats acknowledged that the unpredictability of meetings and their late hour could make coverage difficult.
“We fully accept that it is often impractical for C-SPAN to cover meetings at, say, 1:30 a.m., even though such meetings may be of the utmost importance to the American people. Nonetheless, we hope that you and the C-SPAN network will make a greater effort to cover the House Rules Committee [this year],” wrote Slaughter and Reps. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.), Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) and Doris Matsui (D-Calif.).
The panel is weighted 9-4 in favor of Republicans, and members rarely, if ever, cross party lines on votes.
Democrats have estimated that 84 percent of the rules reported out of the committee this Congress have been either restricted or closed, meaning that they limit the length and nature of floor debates and votes. Past Congresses have been less restrictive. Sixty-three percent of rules in the 106th Congress were restricted or closed. The 107th and 108th Congresses had 72 percent and 78 percent restricted or closed rules, respectively, according to Democratic tallies.
The package of reforms that Rules Committee Democrats unveiled contains measures to:
• Allow the minority one amendment to any rule.
• Provide equal numbers of suspension bills for both parties.
• List scope violations in conference reports.
• Create new consideration points of order.
• Require a roll-call vote on the final version of a conference report.
• Provide 24 hours between when the committee reports a rule and when the House votes on the bill.
During a news conference yesterday to unveil the package, Hastings called on the media to devote more coverage to the committee.
“You see us get shut out, and unless we say something that’s bumper-sticker stuff none of you are doing substantial investigative undertakings,” he said. “It may be mundane and eyes may glaze over, but it is the pure, unadulterated substance of how this organization runs on behalf of the people. That’s a big story, and none of you are covering it.”