The Rules Committee in figures


Looking at tables filled with numbers can lead to a high-pitched MEGO (My Eyes Glaze Over). However, when it comes to tables that you have created that reflect the results that you have experienced professionally, the numbers come to life and begin to tell their stories.

I came to the House in 1969 as a Legislative Assistant and retired in 1997 as Chief of Staff to the House Rules Committee. In my nearly three decades in the House and the next two decades in the think tank world, I have witnessed dramatic changes within the House as an institution and, with it, to changes in the role and powers of the Rules Committee.

The Rules Committee has, for the most part, been the guardian of the majority leadership to send major bills from other committees to the House for privileged consideration under a variety of procedural options. These are incorporated into a “simple resolution” known as a “business resolution” or “special rule”. The options range widely from a completely open floor amendment process (an open rule) to one that denies any floor amendment (a closed rule), with all kinds of other bells and whistles available in between.

I have recounted the development of the House and its Rules Committee in two books written since leaving the Hill: “Congress and the People: Deliberative Democracy on Trial” (2000) and “Changing Cultures in Congress: From Fair Play to Power Plays ”(2018).

To summarize my findings in the two books: The House has become much more partisan and more closed to wide participation of Members in the legislative process. This has two destructive consequences: (1) members feel increasingly marginalized and irrelevant due to rote voting pressures from parties in committee and in the field; and (2) their constituents are put off by all the partisan bickering and traffic jams. Overall, this is a major democratic disconnect.

In the appendices to my two books, I include Rules Committee tables spanning several decades to support my conclusions. These tables are now updated to include the first session of the 117th Congress (2021). My tabs are published every six months on the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) website found here.

What jumps out to new viewers of Table 1 is the contrast over time between the number and percentage of open edit rules, structured rules (which only allow specified edits), and closed rules. without modification. In the 103rd Congress (1993-94), the last Democratic House after 40 consecutive years in power before the GOP took over in 1994, open rules made up 44% of total rules, structured rules 47% and closed rules, only 9%.

One of the problems Republicans ran into in the early 1990s was the practice by which Democrats reduced options for minority floor amendments. The Republicans promised to do better when they took control and, first, they did, by increasing the open rules at the next three congresses (104th-106th) to more than 50 percent. They reduced the percentages of structured rules to around 30%, but still increased the closed rules to 22%.

Republicans would retain control of the House for six consecutive congresses (104th-109th) before Democrats regain majority status for the next four years (2007-2010). However, as Table 1 reveals, by its fourth ruling Congress (the 107), Republicans had gone well below 50% of open rules to 37%, relying more on structured and closed rules – 41 and 22% respectively. And, in their last four years in the majority before the Democratic takeover in 2007, open rules under Republicans have fallen to 26% and 19%, while closed rules have risen to 28% and 32%, respectively. .

Long story short, these trend lines continued under Democrats for the next two Congresses (110th and 111th), under Republicans for their reign in the next four Congresses (112th-115th), and now under Democrats for the past one and a half congresses.

In fact, even before Republicans relinquished control of the House in 2018, they were not producing any open amending rules, and closed rules were up to 56% of the total. Not to be outdone, Democrats haven’t produced any open rules in their last three years in the Majority (1919-2021), and their percentage of closed rules has risen to 65%.

It is misleading to insist too much on the number of amendments authorized by the majority leadership. This excessive emphasis obscures the precept that important legislation should not be substantially rewritten on the floor of the House. Committees remain the main source of legislative expertise where alternative political solutions are debated and voted on as part of a robust amendment process.

This legislative committee model, however, is undermined by a disturbing trend revealed in Table 5. It shows that the number and percentage of unreported bills that benefit from special rules by the Rules Committee is increasing. Keep in mind that in the past it was nearly impossible, except in emergency situations, that an important bill would be granted a special rule if it had not first been the subject of of a committee report.

Yet over the past nine congresses, the percentage of unreported bills with special rules has risen from 27 percent at the 109th Congress to 52 percent at the current Congress, perhaps in part because of the shutdown. of the COVID-19 pandemic which has forced the committees to operate semi-remotely. Still, even before the pandemic, unreported bills hovered around one-third of all special-rule measures, regardless of the majority party.

I once observed that “The best thing about the ‘good old days’ are our fond memories of things that never existed” (Disclosure: I have sometimes been guilty of recalling a golden age of openness and deliberation). Yet the data from the Rules Committee’s work over the past decades speaks for itself: “Facts are stubborn things. “

Don Wolfensberger is a member of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the Bipartisan Policy Center, former staff director of the House Rules Committee and author of “Changing Cultures in Congress: From Fair Play to Power Plays”. The opinions expressed are solely his own.

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