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House rule changes squander good will
The spirit of bipartisan cooperation didn’t survive the first day of the 111th Congress as House Democrats pushed through a package of rule changes Tuesday that the furious Republican minority said trampled their traditional rights to affect legislation.
California Rep. David Dreier, ranking Republican on the House Rules Committee, called the procedural changes engineered by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, an “act of pure cynicism,” in stark contrast to the promises of President-elect Barack Obama to work with Republicans to pass major bills.
“So much for the Obama vision,” said Mr. Dreier, who said the changes would create “the most closed Congress in history.”
House Democrats said the changes were needed to end what they said was an “abuse” of the previous rules by the minority, to torpedo bills likely to pass.
The most contentious rule change places new restrictions on motions to “recommit” a bill for new amendments to the committee that approved it. In practice, that motion often meant a lengthy or even permanent delay in passing the measure. Motions to recommit would still be possible, but the new rules allow the full House to reconsider the bill almost instantaneously.
Democrats, who hold a 257-178 majority in the House, argue that Republicans overused the tactic in the previous Congress, offering unrelated but politically charged amendments to bills in an effort to embarrass Democrats and derail an immediate vote. The new rules would give the minority the right to a vote on sending the bill back to committee without instructions on policy changes, or to ask for those policy changes while the bill remains on the House floor.
Rep. Jim McGovern, Massachusetts Democrat and a member of the Rules Committee, called the change a “modernization” of the House rule. He said Republicans has used the recommit tactic 50 times in the two years since Democrats took control of the House in 2007, compared with 36 times when the Democrats were in the minority from 1995 to 2007.
He accused Republicans of playing “gotcha politics” with their recommit motions, calling it a “cynical way to do business.”
But Rep. Roy Blunt, Missouri Republican and the party’s whip in the previous Congress, said on the House floor that Republicans were “the victims of their own success,” accusing Democrats of changing the rules because the minority had been able to slow or alter bills over the past two years.
Because of the special rules regarding budgetary legislation, Republicans argued that the new restrictions on motions to recommit will hobble their ability to challenge tax increases that are included in larger, “must-pass” bills.
Unlike in the Senate, where the threat of a filibuster gives the minority strong bargaining leverage, the minority party in the House has relatively few tools to challenge the majority’s will. Mr. Dreier noted that the recommit motion had been in place for 100 years, and he rejected Democratic claims that the new rules were a minor tweak to an obscure parliamentary proceeding.
In Congress, he said, “process is substance.”
Another rule change approved Tuesday rolled back one of the signature reforms of the “Contract With America” agenda embraced by House Republicans when they seized control of the chamber in 1994. Mrs. Pelosi’s package repealed a rule limiting committee chairmen to three terms - six years - as head of a House committee.
Republicans argued that without the term limit, committee chairs could establish individual fiefdoms in their areas of jurisdiction.
Doing away with the three-term restriction “will entrench a handful of members of the House in positions of permanent power, with little regard for its impact on the American people,” House Minority Leader John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, said in a letter Monday to Mrs. Pelosi.
About the Author
Raised in Northern Virginia, David R. Sands received an undergraduate degree from the University of Virginia and a master’s degree from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He worked as a reporter for several Washington-area business publications before joining The Washington Times.
At The Times, Mr. Sands has covered numerous beats, including international trade, banking, politics ...
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