- The Washington Times - Monday, January 8, 2007

Democrats recaptured the House last year with promises of transforming Congress into a more accountable and open institution after 12 years of Republican dominance. Last week, they got their first whack at reform with a series of House rules changes, just as Republicans had back in 1995 when they became the majority party.

The Democrats’ first order of business, shutting down debate and forbidding amendments, received the lion’s share of media coverage, with both Republicans and Democrats charging hypocrisy. But this needs a bit of explanation. When Republicans took over in 1995, they too didn’t allow amendments to their new rules package. What has been lost in the coverage, however, is that it is assumed that each new governing party enjoys the near-total freedom of reconstituting House rules.

However, the 1995 Republicans on the whole did allow debate and amendments when the discussion shifted from rules — which apply only to the House and take effect immediately — to their legislative agenda, as outlined in then-Speaker Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America. As former Republican Rep. Robert Walker noted last week on the opposite page, “seventy-five percent of the bills that encompassed [the Contract] were considered under completely open rules or rules that limited only debate time but not the ability to offer amendments.” Currently, Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said that there will be no minority party participation when the House begins floor debate today on the Democrats’ “100 hours” legislative plan.

Perhaps the most significant of the Democrats’ rules package was the straight party-line vote overturning the three-fifths supermajority rule to raise taxes, which was a central part of the 1995 Republicans’ rules package. Democrats tried to soften the message this sends to voters with a budget-balancing scheme they call “pay-as-you-go,” which says that any new spending must be off-set by cuts elsewhere or with tax increases. Does anyone want to guess which option Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charlie Rangel prefers?

More importantly, “pay-as-you-go” isn’t exactly a new idea. As a Heritage Foundation study found, between 1990 and 2002, when a similar PAYGO law existed, “not a single sequestration took place,” meaning that Congress “repeatedly passed legislation that forbade [the Office of Management and Budget] from enforcing PAYGO at all.”

Democrats also took a large swipe at ethics rules, abolishing all lobbyist gifts and paid travel as well as making the earmark process more transparent. These are generally welcome changes and, in the case of earmarks, go beyond what Democrats campaigned on. The gift ban, however, has a loophole for non-profits, which in theory means lobbyists could simply create a nonprofit and still give a member plenty of gifts.

But as Republicans found, rules are much easier to pass than to vigorously enforce year in and year out. We will be interested if, a year from now, the Democratic Party’s reforms will stand up as well as the Republican reforms at the end of 1995.

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