New Congress…New Rules

Charles Cooper

Paying close attention to the rules package is an important early indicator for both the priorities and the process we can expect over the next two years.

Sometimes the least understood facets of policy-making are the most responsible for advancing policy.  The House rules would be the best example of a powerful congressional infrastructure that nobody really knows about.  It’s also often a good indicator of the policy direction a new majority will take.  For those that want to impact the House, especially the many new Members of Congress headed to Washington, understanding the House rules and how they develop when a new majority is in charge is critical.

The House rules are passed at the start of each new Congress.  The majority develops the rules package.  While leadership generally puts the package together between the election and the new year, some rank-and-file members can successfully lobby their colleagues to include new rules and adjust old ones.  Given the large number of new members in the Democratic majority, this may be a year where rank-and-file members have a unique say in what is or is not included in the House rules for next year.

When Republicans took control of the House in 2011, some of their rules changes made it easier to unwind the Affordable Care Act and put in new spending controls that required funding reductions to offset increases in spending – all priorities that helped apply the House rules to the messaging and agenda that helped them win the majority.

Not all changes to the rules get the media spotlight.  The most recent rules package included a provision making the transfer of public lands easier, for example – a controversial provision among conservation groups and one that Democrats largely opposed.

Now that Democrats have won the majority, expect them to draft the rules package in a way that speaks to their own messages and agenda from the campaign.  Even more significant, it is likely that some of the internal procedural rules (empowering more members) may face some changes with the new majority given the influence rank-and-file members will have with the leadership team.

From bringing back some form of earmarks to changing the process of considering bills on the House floor to adjustments in the jurisdiction of committees and potentially even adding new subcommittees – everything is on the table in the new majority.  It is also very likely that many of the changes included by Republicans over the last eight years will be reversed.

For those that have an interest in the 116th Congress – from the new Members of Congress to those seeking to influence the new Congress – paying close attention to the rules package is an important early indicator for both the priorities and the process we can expect over the next two years.  Given that the House floor will now be the main voice of Democrats prior to the 2020 election, the way the house is governed (and the substance behind it) will be the framework for their agenda going forward.

Of course, the rules package is crafted outside the committee process and is entirely drafted by the majority.   Influencing the direction of the new rules requires access to the upper rungs of leadership, which opens the door to large caucuses and well-organized groups of members.  While the House rules must be passed by the entire House (just after the new Speaker is elected), the majority will make sure their own members can pass the new package prior to it moving to the floor.