At the beginning of each Congress, the House adopts its rules. Usually, the rules from the previous Congress are adopted with some modifications. To prepare for the 117th Congress, the House Rules Committee held a hearing on Thursday, October 1, for Members to pitch ideas on how to reform House rules and procedures. During the course of the 3-hour long hearing, Members batted about a range of ideas, affecting Floor procedures, the committee system, the congressional calendar, civility and other areas. It was a lively, thoughtful, and—thankfully—civil discussion. Here are some highlights.
Congressionally Directed Spending (Earmarks)
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) called on the House to reassert its power over Federal discretionary spending by determining which local projects should receive funding, rather than allowing the Executive Branch to do so. Such provisions in appropriations bills are known as congressionally directed spending and are also called earmarks. When the Republicans took control of the House in 2011, they instituted a moratorium on the practice, though the rules permitting them remain on the books.
“Restoring this power in Congress, I believe, is essential to restoring the balance of our constitutional systems of checks and balance,” Hoyer said.
Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-SC) also spoke in favor of earmarks, pointing out that the role of a Congressman is to represent his constituents’ needs. He argued that the Executive Branch’s competitive grant programs disadvantage poor communities.
“I represent many rural communities, each with its own challenges and needs. These communities have limited resources and are unable to hire grant writers and lobbyists,” he said. “What these communities do have is a Congressman, who lives among them, interacts with them regularly, understands their needs, and has been elected by them to represent their needs.”
Clyburn shared anecdotes about how earmarks benefited his community. He recounted that when he was elected, his state’s Secretary of Commerce told him his district’s poor water infrastructure hampered investment in the area. So Clyburn used the earmark process to secure funding to create and then expand a water agency, which the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built. This infrastructure improvement then attracted auto company Volvo to build its first American factory in South Carolina, creating 4,000 new jobs for the community. He also cited the Call Me MISTER program, a nationally recognized initiative at Clemson University that trains black men to become schoolteachers, which was started by a Federal grant.
The Democrats were not alone in acknowledging the advantage of earmarks.
Republican Ranking Member Tom Cole of Oklahoma said Congress lost “an important tool” when it jettisoned earmarks. The moratorium was “a failed experiment,” he said. (He also noted he did not speak for the Republican leadership or the Republican Conference.)
He echoed Clyburn’s points about how Members should look after their constituents and that many citizens lack the resources to lobby for their needs effectively.
Cole pointed out that the Predator drone program has become one of the most important tools in the military’s arsenal. It was started because Congress created and funded it, despite the Pentagon’s opposition. “This was a case where Congress had a much better idea than the bureaucracy,” he said.
Members acknowledged that earmarks were abused in the past and agreed that proper safeguards, transparency, and public accountability were necessary if they were to be brought back.
Picking Up Where the Select Committee on the Modernization Is Leaving Off
Throughout the 116th Congress, the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress has been a force for reforming the way the House operates, and the Members’ Day hearing was a natural venue for its Chairman, Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-WA), to plug its work.
Kilmer recalled that the Members’ Day hearing at the end of the 115th Congress, he urged the Rules Committee to create a panel such as the one he chairs. He called on the process of modernizing the House to continue.
“Our committee generally agreed that the work to modernize and improve the People’s House should be an ongoing effort, not once every 20 to 30 years or so,” Kilmer said. “So I’d encourage this committee to consider how, if at all, to ensure that that work of improvement continues going forward.”
He added his support for congressionally directed spending in the form of the “community focused grant program,” the outlines of which the Select Committee drafted. Implementing this program would make federal grants more efficient and effective and would eliminate government shutdowns, he said.
In addition to re-introducing earmarking he called for the House and its committees to reshape how it debates and deliberates. Committees hearings should be a venue for “discourse,” where Members can ask questions to learn from witnesses, rather than grandstand for the media and the public. Also, committees should follow the lead of the Select Committee and alternate their seating by party, rather than array all the Democrats on one side of the dais and all the Republicans on the other. He also recommended that the House experiment with weekly Oxford-style debates on the Floor and provide time for a bipartisan Member retreat each year.
Motion to Recommit
While Republicans and Democrats joined together in supporting some recommendations, others divided them along party lines. A number of Democrats complained about the motion to recommit, a procedure that allows a bill’s opponent to influence the fate of a bill shortly before a final vote on it.
A simple motion to recommit effectively kills a bill, whereas a successful motion to recommit with instructions amends a bill. Normally, majority party members are expected to vote against the motion and minority party members are expected to vote for it. Motions to recommit with instructions often include an amendment that is politically awkward or divisive for the majority party and requires Members to choose whether to vote with the party leadership or for the motion. The choice is particularly difficult for vulnerable incumbents.
Some of the Democrats complained that they did not have time to review the text of the motions to recommit and that they are often poorly drafted. They also said that the motions are offered at the end of the House’s consideration of a bill, after a committee has reviewed it and the House has debated it on the Floor.
Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA) called the motion to recommit a “stupid way to govern” and “a game.”
“It was wrong when the Democrats were in the minority and we did this to the Republicans,” he said. “It’s wrong that you do this to us.”
Lieu argued that the motion to recommit is not a substantive way to legislate the minority has other ways to influence the process.
Republican Rep. Rob Woodall of Georgia, a member of the Rules Committee, pushed back against various criticisms of the motion to recommit. He disputed the idea that the minority are afforded much of an opportunity to influence a bill, citing the number of closed rules the House adopts. Additionally, he pointed out that under an open rule, the Members can offer amendments whose texts have not been made available beforehand and which have not been previously reviewed.
“Last-minute legislative language used to be a hallmark of this institution,” he said. “It was just common as a function of the legislative process.”
Woodall also said that last year, the Republicans agreed to forego a motion to recommit on one bill on drug pricing in exchange for securing a vote on their alternative to the Democrats’ plan. In other words, the motion to recommit was a bargaining chip that opened up “a very substantive conversation about how we wanted to reform prescription drugs.”
Rep. Stephanie Murphy of Florida, another Democrat who criticized the motion to recommit, acknowledged that it was important for the minority to have a voice in the process. Rather than eliminating it, she suggested raising the threshold for adoption to a 2/3 majority. This would put it on par with a motion to suspend the rules and pass a bill, a procedure used primarily for non-controversial legislation.
The motion to recommit regularly aggravates the majority, regardless of which party controls the House. However, when faced with discontent in the past, the current Rules Committee Chairman, Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, has cautioned his colleagues about the dangers of getting rid of it, pointing out it will be useful when the Democrats find themselves in the minority again.
Mark Strand is the President of the Congressional Institute and Timothy Lang is the Institute’s research director. The Sausage Factory blog is a Congressional Institute project dedicated to explaining parliamentary procedure, Congressional politics, and other issues pertaining to the legislative branch.