The new Republican majority in the House of Representatives adopted new rules yesterday that will make Congress more transparent, more fiscally responsible and more procedurally fair to members and their constituents. Although changes to procedure wade deep into the legislative weeds, they signify a new reform ethic taking hold on Capitol Hill.
Finally, a reading of the entire Constitution is required of each new Congress, and every bill must contain a section citing the constitutional provision that gives authority for whatever the bill does. Forcing politicians to cite the source of their authority makes them acknowledge that their powers are limited to those enumerated in a document emanating from and ratified by the citizenry.
A number of changes will make it easier for the public to track what the House is doing - and, for that matter, for House members themselves to know what’s going on. One new rule makes it harder for committee chairmen to blind-side opponents by calling meetings without adequate notice. Other new policies require that all committee meetings be electronically recorded and that the text of all bills be posted electronically 24 hours before committee votes and 72 hours before final passage on the House floor. No longer will members and the public need to “pass the bills to find out what’s in them,” as former Speaker Nancy Pelosi so callously put it.
Two new rules govern how taxpayer dollars are spent. One will require that new entitlement spending be offset by spending cuts. This could keep the national debt from growing faster than its already dangerous rate. Also, whenever the House adopts an amendment to an appropriations bill that eliminates an item of spending, that amount of money will have to be subtracted from the overall bill for the agency being funded, rather than merely being allocated elsewhere. This is a useful tool for deficit reduction because it means cutting pork saves money, rather than merely redirecting it.
Congress has a bad habit of including criminal penalties with new regulations. Reagan-era Attorney General Edwin Meese III proposed that new provisions creating criminal penalties be reviewed by the Judiciary Committee to prevent overcriminalization. Although the new majority didn’t include this restriction on overbearing federal police powers in the new rules package, nothing forbids reformers from implementing it - in practice - as Congress goes about its business. The same considerations that led Republicans to adopt the other new rules to limit government’s reach should inspire them to adopt this extra safeguard against bureaucratic abuse.