Checkpoint: The Political Priorities Behind New Congressional Rules

John Brighenti    | Flickr Creative Commons

John Brighenti | Flickr Creative Commons

The United States of America operates under multiple layers of laws and regulations. While many recognize that the Constitution affords a dual legislative system, many ignore that Congress also governs itself through a complex system of unique parliamentary procedures. Originally envisioned as a means of streamlining order and efficiency, the rules adopted by the two chambers of Congress, like most aspects of political life in today’s America, have increasingly taken a partisan flair by becoming means for the political party in control to skew the legislative mechanism in their favor.

The most prominent among these internal rules is the Senate filibuster, which has recently come into the spotlight due to its role in incapacitating the Republican Senate and forcing a historic government shut-down. Explicitly absent from the Constitution, the filibuster is based on the historic understanding of the Senate as a “cooling ground” where heated clamors for reform by the structurally populist House would be permissibly debated ad infinitum until a level-headed consensus could be reached. As part of internal Senatorial procedure, the filibuster effectively changes the Constitutional majority consensus to require three-fifth agreement in order to advance legislation and has been tweaked by both sides of the aisle to push through international treaties and judicial nominees alike.

Aside from facilitating favorable policymaking, Congressional rules help anticipate the political direction a newly minted legislature will pursue. As such, the rules adopted by the House last week have telegraphed the Democratic party’s priorities to political observers. Despite Mitch McConnell’s warning of “presidential harassment” and many Democrats’ pledges to expand investigations into Donald Trump, these rule changes signal that Democrats will focus more on projecting a positive message by addressing bi-partisan structural concerns while strengthening support from their base. With over sixty rule changes poised to come into effect, understanding the most significant of them allows us to better comprehend this new political direction and the motivations behind them.

Diversity and Evolving Social Norms

Swearing the Oath of Allegiance at the center of a multi-ethnic rainbow of children, many could have guessed that the promotion of diversity would be at the center of the Pelosi’s platform. Indeed, the rules package contains provisions to diversify House staff and allow for more cultural inclusion within the most diverse Congress in U.S. history. By refashioning the rules, the House now allows members to wear religious headwear during sessions, exempting them from the general prohibition of hats in the Hall. More structural changes include the creation of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, tasked with providing recommendations on how to make the legislature more diverse and required to submit diversity reports to House and committee leaders at the end of each legislative session.

Increasingly, there is a perception by liberal voters that the opposition is ignorant of evolving social norms and more likely to engage in ethically dubious governing practices. This trend prompted Democrats to formalize rules designed to strengthen ethical standards and weaken perceived Congressional immunity. With massive public support for the #MeToo movement (inspiring the largest fundraiser in GoFundMe history) and befitting of a chamber led by the first female speaker on the 100th anniversary of female suffrage, the revamped Democratic House rules include popular provisions that mandate anti-harassment policies in House offices, prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, and forbid sexual relations between members and their staff. Significantly, the new rules also require members to cover costs in discrimination settlements in an effort to distance a representative’s past transgressions from the new House.

Operating in tandem with measures that prohibit indicted members from serving on committees, banning members from serving on corporate boards, and providing greater investigative capacities to subcommittees of the Committee of Ethics, these rules aim to show the American people that the left is serious about “draining the swamp.” Such a position is not shocking considering that the decisions of the 116th Democratic-controlled House will likely be at the center of a politically charged 2020 presidential race. By showing their base that they are able to advance evolving social norms and check the discriminatory and duplicitous tendencies that have become synonymous with their likely rival candidate, and by showing hesitant non-establishment voters of their intent to clean up Congress (with even Republicans now losing faith in the GOP), Democratic lawmakers are hoping to rally the nation’s support for next election.

Fixing Gridlock and Bi-Partisan Reform

While forcing consensus is a positive democratic mechanism, the polarization of politics in a system where inherent institutional checks depend on consensus has long incapacitated the government. Recognizing this, the new Democratic rules envision more bi-partisan cooperation in the House by implementing two important changes. First, a new rule envisions that the House Minority leader would assign the second ten (H.R. 11-20) bills to their respective committees. By doing so, the regulation gives the now Republican minority a chance to influence passage through committee placement (which in theory can send bills to their death). Second, the creation of a consensus calendar now forces the speaker to introduce legislation onto the floor if it has 290 cosponsors (two-thirds of the House). This regulation is intended as facilitating the vote on bi-partisan bills which may otherwise be swallowed by hostile committees.

The ongoing partial government shutdown, now the second longest in U.S. history, highlights the fact that the most gridlocked legislation in America is appropriations. Laws concerning appropriations, which are enacted at least once a year, prove to be major flashpoints between fiscally-conservative Republicans and Keynesian-leaning Democrats. The new rules thus attempt to both make the appropriations process more palpable and less consequential. First, the re-imposition of PAYGO, a rule that mandates deficit neutral mandatory spending increases, in the House can be seen as an overture to Republicans. Second, the revival of the Gephardt Rule, which automatically raises the debt ceiling with passage of an appropriations act, is understood as a means of lessening the double gridlock (as they are currently considered separately) while incentivizing appropriations action.

While these measures may appear constructive, a closer observation shows that they are more symbolic than cooperative. The Minority leader is only allowed to assign 10 bills among the thousands introduced during a typical Congressional session, to committees stacked by Democrats. Furthermore, the appropriations overtures are mere formalities (PAYGO has been statutory law since 2010) and are counterbalanced with restrictions on the use of “dynamic scoring,” an analysis of macroeconomic benefits used to justify tax cuts, by the Budget Office and the removal of the super-majority vote to raise income taxes. Even the ostensibly innocuous increased participation by non-voting members can be seen as a measure to tilt the balance in the Democrats’ favor, as all but one align with the left. More likely, these measures represent Democratic overtures to the public, especially swing-state voters, who increasingly see them as inflammatory and fiscally reckless.

Power Priorities and Principles Appealing to the Base

While many of these rule changes are positive phenomena and popular among Americans, many others show that the Democratic party is playing a political game rather than attempting to significantly change the system. Many new rules seem to have been done to rally the base ahead of the elections. Along with ancillary symbolic name changes, the creation of new committees on Diversity and Climate change echo longstanding progressive demands for action in those policy areas. These changes were likely done in order to prevent democratic flight to socialist candidates such as Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. Worse yet, some new rules seem to simply guarantee the elitist business as usual politics ripe in the Democratic party. A new rule requiring the entire caucus (rather than one member) initiate proceedings for the removal of a speaker seems to remove any threats to Pelosi’s precarious position, while the reversal of Republican-imposed term limits on committee chairs appears to defy progressive calls for the dismantlement of political monopolies. In sum, while the Democratic party has shown some gumption for change, these new rules do not go far enough and seem mostly insincere.