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Issue Brief: Democratic House Rules Changes

Jan 03, 2019

What are the House Rules?

In Article I, Section 5 of the U.S. Constitution, both houses of Congress are granted the powers to establish their own rules by which they conduct legislative and other business. These powers are broad and nearly absolute. Rules for the House and Senate vary widely and are contained in a combination of official standing rules, explanatory manuals, rules enacted as law, and special rules adopted from time to time.

In the House, there are 29 standing rules, supplemented by Jefferson’s Manual. In addition to House rules, the Speaker of the House and the Majority Leader announce policies and the majority party adopts party rules that affect how the majority party governs the House. For example, the current ban on earmarks in the House is not contained in the standing House rules but rather in the House Republican Conference rules.

Why does the House adopt new rules with each new Congress?

At the beginning of each Congress, the House votes on a resolution establishing the House rules for that term. This is necessary because the rules of the House do not transfer from one Congress to the next—a tradition unique to the House and not shared in the Senate which is a continuous body.

Traditionally, the resolution that implements the rules for the House is H. Res. 5 or H. Res. 6. Generally, the resolution implements the rules from the previous Congress with amendments to those rules. Prior to being voted on by the full House of Representatives, the proposed changes to the House rules are approved by the majority party within their own party’s caucus or conference meetings.

When are the new rules adopted for the incoming 116th Congress?

The Democratic Chairman of the House Committee on Rules will introduce the resolution within the first few hours of the new Congress convening and soon after the Members take the Oath of Office. The vote is typically held mid-afternoon on the first day of the new Congress. However, this year, Speaker Nancy Pelosi is facing a last minute protest from liberals who want further changes to the House rules in order to allow more deficit spending.

Why should conservatives care about the Democratic rules resolution?

Every voting body operates by a set of parliamentary rules. Many of these organizations adopt an established set of rules such as Robert’s Rules of Order which protect the rights of the membership, particularly the minority. However, the House adopts its own set of rules that sometimes reflect general parliamentary practice and at other times diverge from it.

The ruling party in the House has enormous power to enact rules that subvert the rights of the minority party. The Democrats' rules resolution reflects the exercise of this power. They are proposing to adopt rules that will essentially embed their liberal agenda into the House itself and deprive conservatives of certain abilities to offer alternative proposals.

Highlights of the New Democratic House Rules

1. Motion to Vacate the Chair

Under current House rules, a Member may offer a privileged (forces a vote on the House floor) motion to vacate the chair which has the effect of removing the person serving as Speaker of the House. This motion has only been voted on once, in 1910. Recently, Rep. Mark Meadows introduced this motion, but Speaker John Boehner announced his resignation prior to the motion receiving a vote.

The proposed rule change would only allow the motion to vacate to have privileged status if it first receives a majority vote by either party. Because party leaders have substantial ability to control the votes within party meetings, this would effectively remove the opportunity for Members of Congress to hold a Speaker of the House accountable for the 116th Congress.

2. Consensus Calendar

All legislation in the House that passes a committee is added to one of three legislative calendars for consideration of the legislation in the full House.

The proposed rule change adds one additional calendar referred to as the Consensus Calendar and requires that the House consider the bill on the floor. For a bill to be eligible for the new calendar, it must have accumulated 290 cosponsors. This proposal will likely have the effect of empowering moderates to the detriment of both conservatives and liberals.

3. Economic Impacts of Taxes

Legislation that changes federal government revenues has to be “scored” or receive an economic impact estimate from the Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT). Currently, JCT produces two scores: a simple outlining of the number of dollars the bill will increase or decrease federal revenues (known as a static score) and a macroeconomic analysis of how the bill will impact other aspects of the economy (known as a dynamic score). In addition, House rules prohibit a bill that raises income taxes from passing unless it receives a ⅗ supermajority vote.

The proposed rule change eliminates the dynamic scoring requirement as well as the required supermajority vote for raising taxes. Combined, these two changes make it harder to reduce taxes and easier to increase taxes on Americans.

4. Increase in Budget Authority

The federal government is funded through 12 annual appropriations bills. Each bill establishes a certain level of spending known as budget authority. The current House rules prohibit amendments that increase a bill’s budget authority.

The proposed rule change will eliminate the point of order against amendments that increase an appropriation bill’s budget authority. This will allow amendments that increase spending in a government program without offsetting that increase by reducing spending in a different government program.

5. Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity

Rules that govern employment practices in the House mirror federal civil rights laws. Members of Congress are held to the exact same standards as civilian employers.

The proposed rule change will add employment protections for employees based upon their sexual orientation or gender identity. This could force Members who hold traditional views on sexual orientation and gender to hire employees that disagree with the Member’s religious and sincerely held beliefs or political views.

6. Gephardt Rule and the Debt Limit

The federal government incurs debt under a law that places a limit on the dollar amount of debt. This is referred to as the statutory debt limit. When the debt limit has been reached, the Congress must pass into law a new debt limit before the U.S. Treasury may increase the federal debt.

The proposed rule change eliminates a separate vote on increasing the statutory debt limit in the House by “deeming” a debt limit increase to be passed by the House without Members having to vote on the increase. A previous Democratic version of this rule was known as the “Gephardt Rule.” The effect of this change will be to shield Members from the accountability of their vote to further increase the indebtedness of the nation.

7. Legal Defense of Liberal Policies

The House and/or Senate will, from time to time, seek to intervene in federal court cases that impact the rights of the Congress. Under Speaker Boehner, the House engaged in litigation regarding the Obama Administration’s abuse of presidential powers. In order to authorize litigation, the House passes a resolution authorizing the Speaker to do so.

The proposed rule change eliminates the need to pass a separate resolution authorizing litigation and instead empowers Speaker Pelosi to initiate legal action on her own. This means she is automatically authorized to fight in the courts to preserve Obamacare and to oppose President Trump’s efforts to reform the food stamp program. The effect of this rule change will be to allow Speaker Pelosi to speak for all Members of the House in court in support of partisan, liberal policies.

8. Select Committee on Climate Change

The House has 21 permanent or standing committees along with four joint committees with the Senate. There are also select committees established on occasion that are tasked with specific policy goals.

The proposed rule change establishes a new select committee tasked with investigating and developing recommendations to solve the “climate crisis.”

Conclusion

Whichever political party holds the majority in the House of Representatives has enormous power to control the legislative agenda of the Congress. One lever of power that parties use to control the outcome of legislation is the parliamentary process. Parties amend rules in such a way to make it harder to move policies that are in conflict with the majority party’s goals.

The new Democratic majority in the House have proposed rules that will consolidate more power in Speaker Pelosi’s office, advance liberal priorities, and eliminate certain rules that currently protect conservatives.