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Democrats’ rules package stiffs House Republicans and Senate

Greg Nash

In their rules package for the 116th Congress, House Democrats are to be commended for keeping their promises on such things as stricter internal ethics and anti-discrimination rules, greater advance notice and availability of committee and floor schedules and documents, and new pressures on committees to conduct hearings and issue reports on major legislation that comes through the Rules Committee.

That said, there are some zingers in the package that jump-out and gobsmack you with the stench of swamp-gas.  First and foremost is the Democrats’ back-to-the-past one-person unilateralism on committee oversight.  Prior to the Republican rules reforms in the 104th Congress, committee oversight plans were usually meaningless majority staff regurgitations of all of their committee’s jurisdictional responsibilities, with few targeted areas for major inquiry.  That was changed in 1995 to require committees to meet and vote on their oversight agendas at the beginning of each Congress and account for them in their final activity reports. 

Under the new, old rule, each committee chairman, after consulting the ranking minority member, submits the committee oversight agenda to the House Administration and Oversight and Reform committees.  The Democrats’ promise last year to re-empower committees has given-way to a reversion to the old, “committee barons know best” approach.  This seems to comport with early reports that the Democratic chairmen will focus early and often on the foibles, flaws and faux-pas of White House and departmental officials.  But that leaves both majority and minority committee members out-in-the-cold in determining what those plans should be.

Relatedly, the Democratic package drops the requirement that at least one member of the Committee on Oversight and Reform be present at the taking of depositions pursuant to any inquiry by that committee (or its chairman’s).  Moreover, the Democrats have not jettisoned the existing rule permitting committee chairmen who have been delegated by their committee rules to unilaterally issue subpoenas, even though while in the minority Democrats criticized the practice as a gross abuse of power.  This should set-up an interesting score-keeping competition between the old, subpoena slap-happy Republican chairs and their new Democratic successors.

Finally, the new rules package resurrects the old “Gephardt rule” (after former Democratic Majority Leader Richard Gephardt), permitting the self-executed adoption of a debt limit law in the House.  Only this time it’s with a twist –call it Gephardt 2.oh-oh.   The original rule, which Republicans abandoned out of disuse in the 1990s, provided that the debt limit number contained in the finally adopted budget resolution would be automatically spun-off into a joint resolution by the House Clerk, deemed as adopted by the House, and sent merrily on its way to the Senate. 

The new rule provides that the debt limit number in the House-passed budget resolution be slipped into a joint resolution by the Clerk and deemed passed before the Senate even takes up  the budget resolution.  Let the Republican-controlled Senate play catch-up with the Democratic budget, if it can.  The House meantime can claim it has done its best to skirt another debt limit fiscal cliff-hanger –at least until the Senate balks at the House’s sleight-of-hand.   

House rules packages that emerge from majority party caucuses (or not) at the beginning of each odd-numbered year are always a grab bag of goodies and baddies that the House usually adopts on a not-so-surprising party-line vote so it can get on with its regular business.  At least this year’s package has an escape valve in the form of a one-year bipartisan Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress.  The 12-member panel can always recommend rescinding any of the new or new/old rules that don’t work out as intended.  But then again, it can only report any recommendations by a two-thirds vote. That’s the same kind of super-majority vote barrier that blocked last year’s Joint Select Committee on Budget and Appropriations Process Reform from reporting any recommendations back to their two houses. 

Don Wolfensberger is a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center and Bipartisan Policy Center, author of “Changing Cultures in Congress: From Fair Play to Power Plays,” and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.  The views expressed are solely his own.


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