House Democrats revealed their rules package. Here are the biggies.

Late Tuesday night, House Democrats unveiled a wide-ranging set of proposed rules changes. As expected, the changes concentrate on member ethics and corruption, but also touch on issues of transparency, the congressional budget, and even propose changing the process for how members go about removing the Speaker of the House. The House will vote on Thursday to adopt the new rules as the first order of business in the 116th Congress.

Below is a quick list of the most important changes contained in the proposed package. The list is not exhaustive, and is of course open to debate. Congressional experts have already begun to break down the likely effects of some of the changes and the discussion is just getting started.

1. Establishment of a Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress: Maybe not the most important proposal for many readers, but author’s prerogative here! Twelve members–six Democrats and six Republicans–will be appointed to a select committee to “investigate, study, make findings, hold public hearings, and develop recommendations on modernizing Congress by the end of the year.” Many will decry the select committee as a half measure unlikely to produce real results, but its establishment is a signal from leadership that the congressional reform movement has gained enough traction to warrant internal study. Also of note, freshman members capitalized on their public calls for congressional reform and gained a seat at the reform table: at least two select committee members must be members serving in their first term. Two members from both the Committees on Rules and House Administration will also be appointed.

2. Reinstates PAYGO: The PAYGO rule requires that any increase in mandatory spending must be offset by tax increases or equal cuts, and creates a point of order against any measure that affects the federal deficit. This may turn out to be a contentious political matter and has already led to multiple progressive members focused on entitlements (which make up the vast majority of mandatory spending) promising to vote against the rules package if PAYGO is included. It’s very likely, though, that Democratic leaders know they have support here from enough members to include it in the package.

3. Establishment of a Select Committee on the Climate Crisis: The select climate change committee will be reestablished after being shuttered in 2011 by Republicans. Committee members will study and make recommendations to “achieve substantial and permanent reductions in pollution and other activities that contribute to the climate crisis.” The new select committee reportedly will be chaired by Kathy Castor (D-FL), a longtime member of the Energy and Commerce Committee who has forsworn accepting new donations from oil and gas industry PACs after facing earlier criticism for doing so. It is also notable that Democratic leadership stripped the committee of subpoena power.

4. Major Ethics Reforms: The rules package follows through on Democrats’ pledge to take on government corruption and much-needed ethics reforms. Changes include:

  • a ban on sitting members serving on corporate boards of any public entity;
  • a ban on sexual relations between committee staff and members;
  • a requirement that any member under indictment or who has been federally charged with an offense that carries a prison sentence of at least two years must resign committee membership until charges are dismissed or punishment has been reduced below the two year prison threshold. (This would apply to at least a few sitting members);
  • Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDAs) cannot be used to restrict staff from communicating with congressional ethics offices;
  • a provision that automatically establishes an investigatory subcommittee for ethics investigations. Previous congresses effectively killed ethics investigations by failing to investigate. The automatic subcommittee will help ensure ethics investigations are carried out;
  • also noteworthy is that the rules package keeps a provision that weakens the appointment process to Office of Congressional Ethics’ board.

5. Members Pay for Discrimination Lawsuits: This is an extension of ethics reforms, but is  important enough to merit its own bullet point. Members will now be required to reimburse the Treasury for any settlement paid out in relation to their own discriminatory misconduct. Relatedly, after a long fought battle during the 115th Congress, each House office will be required to adopt anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policies. It is unclear, however, if settlements resulting from sexual harassment complaints face the same reimbursement requirement. Numerous tax-payer funded settlements—including $84,000 for Rep. Blake Farenthold’s transgressions—have been paid out without the Member being required to reimburse the government. According to a 2018 Office of Compliance report, $17 million has been paid out to victims since 1990.

6. Amends discharge petition process: In previous congresses, motions to discharge  were only in order to be considered on the second and fourth Mondays of each month, and often the House would not meet at those times. This rules change requires the Speaker to allow consideration of a discharge motion within two legislative days after the motion has been announced. This change gives entrepreneurial members a greater incentive to solicit bipartisan support to bypass committee and party leaders unwilling to put a supported measure up for a vote. Relatedly, in a nod to the Break The Gridlock proposed changes aimed at getting more legislation heard on the House floor, a measure becomes eligible for a newly created Consensus Calendar by accumulating 290 cosponsors (a level which must hold for 25 legislative days) and being reported by its committee of jurisdiction. The Speaker must designate one measure from the Consensus Calendar each week the House is in session for consideration. Of course, most bills receiving 290 cosponsors are already afforded floor votes, the Speaker has great discretion over which measure to move, and 25 legislative days is a lot of days in the real world, so it is unclear how many bills this change will affect going forward.

7. 72 Hour Text availability: To allow members more time to read and understand what they will vote on, legislative text must be made available a full 72 hours before being considered in the House. This differs from the “third day” implementation of previous congresses.

8. Repeal of Committee Chair Term Limits: As expected, Democrats will repeal the committee chair term limits instituted by Republicans when they took over the House in 2011. Term limits, some argue, decrease member incentives to become experts on committee matters, and ultimately may lead to early member retirements. We don’t know what Democrats will do with their internal caucus rules, however, when they debate term limits for chairs and potentially those in leadership positions.

9. Automatic suspension of the debt limit: After the adoption of a budget resolution, a joint resolution suspending the debt limit through the remainder of the fiscal year will be considered as passed and sent to the Senate. This effectively revives the repealed “Gephardt Rule” which automatically raises the federal debt ceiling rather than requiring a separate, and very politically toxic vote, concerning the nation’s debt after passage of a budget resolution. But the 2019 version comes with a small, important twist (as explained perfectly by Molly Reynolds): instead of the debt limit being raised after “Congress completed action” on the budget bill (meaning both chambers) as in the old Gephardt Rule, the new version will trigger the adoption of the joint resolution raising the debt limit when the “House” adopts the budget resolution.

10. Establishment of an Office of Diversity and Inclusion: Recognizing a lack of congressional staffer diversity, particularly in top House positions, an Office of Diversity and Inclusion will be created to “recruit, hire, train, develop, advance, promote, and retain a diverse workforce.” The new Speaker-appointed Director will be tasked with developing a plan to increase staff diversity on the Hill, as well as establish a diversity survey of House staffers to be submitted to the Committee on House Administration at the end of each session of Congress.

11. Establishment of an Office of the Whistleblower Ombudsman: The Speaker will appoint a Whistleblower Ombudsman to establish best practices for House offices to receive whistleblower submissions, provide training to House office staff in how to properly report whistleblower intake and maintain confidentiality of whistleblowers, and advise staff of relevant laws and policies regarding whistleblower contacts and provided information. The establishment of the Office is a clear signal that the House is open for business when it comes to concerned government employees alerting Congress to impropriety going on within federal agencies under the Trump Administration.


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Topics: Reform Efforts