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Them’s the Rules


Amid fierce wrangling over the Obama-GOP tax deal, House Democrats have granted themselves blanket authority to circumvent the standard rules process and expedite floor votes through December 18. Republicans, not surprisingly, are crying foul. They argue that such authority is supposed to be (1) reserved for a few “must pass” legislative items and (2) limited to a very short time frame (i.e., a day or two). The fact that Nancy Pelosi & Co. will enjoy this authority on all legislation over a ten-day period during a lame-duck session is “truly outrageous,” says a senior GOP House staffer. Democrats, of course, contend that the temporary rule change is necessary for the completion of their burgeoning to-do list.

The controversy underscores just how bitterly partisan the rules process has become. Since January 2007, the Rules Committee chair has been New York Democrat Louise Slaughter, who drew attention last March when she proposed enacting Obamacare through a “deem and pass” rule. Starting next month, the committee will be headed by California Republican David Dreier, who has made no secret of his frustration with the status quo.

“We’ve gone through this entire Congress without a single bill in the House of Representatives being considered under an open amendment process,” Dreier complained to NPR a day after the 2010 election. “And that meant that Democrats and Republicans, alike, have been denied the opportunity to participate.” By promoting “more open rules,” Dreier said, the GOP will facilitate “the kind of free-flowing debate that the American people deserve.”

On November 5, he sent a letter to House chief administrative officer Dan Strodel requesting that cameras be installed to document Rules Committee hearings. (Most other House committees already have cameras in their hearing rooms.) Dreier has also acknowledged that he “could have done better” (in terms of fostering open debate) during his previous stint as chair of the rules panel, which lasted eight years (from 1999 to 2007).

While the committee may sound rather dull, it wields tremendous (if often underappreciated) influence, thanks in large measure to its partisan composition. In a recent report titled “The Wrong Way Congress,” the four current Rules Committee Republicans — one of whom (Florida’s Lincoln Diaz-Balart) is retiring at the end of the lame duck — explained its importance: “In the House, the Rules Committee is known as the ‘traffic cop,’ creating a path for consideration of bills on the House floor. With its supermajority ratio of 9 Majority members and 4 Minority members, the Rules Committee does just about whatever it wants, from deciding which amendments are debated to actually rewriting bills. Because of this power, the Rules Committee has always been the arm of the Speaker.”

During the 112th Congress, the overarching goal of GOP committee members will be to improve the transparency of House operations and thereby ensure greater accountability, says the senior Republican aide. On a policy level, they will seek to make the rules process more friendly to spending cuts. Whether or not they succeed, the committee will play a significant role in shaping the GOP agenda.