‘Historic’ House Rules Package Restores Transparency, Accountability
The U.S. House enacted a rules package Monday night by a vote of 220-213, with one Republican siding with the Democrats and another not voting. The rules, which will govern the chamber throughout the 118th Congress, incorporate changes negotiated by GOP holdouts during last week’s historic, 15-round marathon vote to choose a House speaker.
“One part of the agreement,” explained Representative Dan Bishop (R-N.C.), a member of the House Freedom Caucus, was “sweeping and historic changes to the rules under which … the House operates.” Under the new rules, bills must have a single purpose, and amendments must be germane to that subject. “That will avoid these horrible, $1.7 trillion omnibus appropriations bills that have everything stuck in them … that get dropped out in public about 35 hours or so before they’re enacted,” said Bishop.
The lame-duck Congress passed just such an omnibus package just before adjourning for Christmas. “We’ve got the return of the Holman Rule,” Bishop continued, “in which we can zero out specific offices within the bureaucracy or even salaries … like a Dr. Fauci who’s abusing power.” He also commended the reinstatement of the one-member motion to vacate the chair, which can trigger a vote over the speaker position. “We’ve insulated leadership too much rather than holding them accountable,” he explained.
“The whole point is that we’re trying to continue the great history of the people’s house,” said Representative Chip Roy (R-Texas), who led the faction of members insisting on rule changes. Representative Mary Miller (R-Ill.) called the rules package a “historic conservative victory to ensure the House of Representatives stops reckless spending and holds the Biden administration accountable to the American people.”
Rules changes obtained by House conservatives fall into several categories — good governance, accountability, transparency, fiscal responsibility, and policy priorities — and are summarized below.
- Motion to vacate restored. Republicans removed text added by the 2019 incoming Democratic majority, led by then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), which raised the threshold for a resolution to remove the speaker up to a majority of a caucus. This returned the House to its historic norm, whereby a single member can call for a “Resolution declaring the office of speaker vacant.” Such “privileged” resolutions on the House floor “shall have precedence of all other questions.”
- Proxy voting abolished. Temporary, COVID-era rules to enable members to vote remotely, in committee or on the floor, were excluded from the rules package.
- Single purpose bills required. Bill sponsors must print “in the Congressional Record a statement setting forth the single subject of the bill or joint resolution.”
- Germaneness Clause restored. The 1789 clause declares, “No motion or proposition on a subject different from that under consideration shall be admitted under color of amendment.” If any such amendment is raised, any member has the right to call for a “point of order” and insist that the amendment is not allowed. But congressional leaders often suspend the Germaneness Clause. The new rules package prohibits “a rule or order that waives all points of order against an amendment,” which protects the right of members to invoke the Germaneness Clause against any non-germane amendment.
- Three-days’ notice mandated. According to the new rules, bill text must be published “at least 72 hours in advance” of a vote, so that the members have time to read and consider it.
- Lobbyist access restricted. Under the new rules, House exercise facilities, which are exclusive to members and people close to them, “may not provide access … to any former Member, former officer, or spouse who is a [registered] lobbyist.”
- Congressional unions revoked. The rules annulled “regulations adopted pursuant to House Resolution 1096,” passed in 2021, which permitted congressional employees to unionize. Instead, the rules adopt more standard procedures for protecting workplace rights.
- Ethics reform ordered. The new rules “establish a bipartisan task force to conduct a comprehensive review of House ethics rules and regulations.” They also require the House Ethics Committee to create “a process to receive from the public outside information offered as a complaint.”
- Internal whistleblowers protected. The rules stipulate that any non-disclosure agreements that U.S. House employees or contractors are required to sign “shall — (1) provide clear guidance that the employee or contractor may communicate concerning any matter with the Committee on Ethics, the Office of Congressional Workplace Rights, or any other office or entity designated by the Committee on House Administration … and (2) not be binding and shall have no legal effect to the extent to which it requires prior, concurrent, or subsequent notice or approval from anyone on any matter” regarding these communications.
- Committee investigations streamlined. Various rule changes aid committees in pursuing investigations. For instance, “witnesses at committee or subcommittee proceedings may appear remotely” if they are appearing in a non-governmental capacity. Executive officials will still be grilled in person, but they work in D.C. anyways. Additionally, “the chair of a standing committee … upon consultation with the ranking minority member of such committee, may order the taking of depositions, including pursuant to subpoena, by a member or counsel of such committee.” Such delegation can streamline the process.
- COVID origins investigated. The rules package spelled out one congressional investigation in detail. It established a “Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic” under the House Oversight Committee. With a 7-5 Republican majority, this subcommittee was “authorized and directed to conduct a full and complete investigation and study” regarding:
- “(i) the origins of the Coronavirus pandemic, including but not limited to the Federal Government’s funding of gain-of function research;
- (ii) the efficiency, effectiveness, and transparency of the use of taxpayer funds and relief programs to address the coronavirus pandemic, including any reports of waste, fraud, or abuse;
- (iii) the implementation or effectiveness of any Federal law or regulation applied, enacted, or under consideration to address the coronavirus pandemic and prepare for future pandemics;
- (iv) the development of vaccines and treatments, and the development and implementation of vaccination policies for Federal employees and members of the armed forces;
- (v) the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic and associated government response on individuals, communities, small businesses, health care providers, States, and local government entities;
- (vi) the societal impact of decisions to close schools, how the decisions were made and whether there is evidence of widespread learning loss or other negative effects as a result of these decisions;
- (vii) executive branch policies, deliberations, decisions, activities, and internal and external communications related to the coronavirus pandemic;
- (viii) the protection of whistleblowers who provide information about waste, fraud, abuse, or other improper activities related to the coronavirus pandemic; and
- (ix) cooperation by the executive branch and others with Congress, the Inspectors General, the Government Accountability Office, and others in connection with oversight of the preparedness for and response to the coronavirus pandemic.”
- Committee transparency ordered. The rules required that all but three standing committees “shall, in a meeting that is open to the public, adopt its authorization and oversight plan for that Congress.” The purpose and role of the exempted committees (Appropriations, Rules, and Ethics) is already clear, but the other committees must now make their agenda transparent.
- Agency audits authorized. As part of their oversight plans, committees must include a list of programs and agencies whose authorization has expired and needs renewal, or is authorized permanently. They must provide “a description of any oversight to support the authorization of each such program or agency in the current Congress.” The rules also invite the committees to submit “recommendations for the consolidation or termination of such programs or agencies that are duplicative, unnecessary, or inconsistent with the appropriate roles and responsibilities of the Federal Government,” as well as legislative fixes for “Federal rules, regulations, statutes, and court decisions affecting such programs and agencies that are inconsistent with the authorities of the Congress under Article I of the Constitution.”
- Electronic access advanced. House personnel “shall continue efforts to broaden the availability and utility of legislative documents in machine readable formats… in furtherance of the institutional priority of increasing public availability and identification of legislative information,” per the new rules. They must also “continue efforts to improve the electronic document repository.” This slow transition to the 21st century is meant to improve “public availability and use of legislative information produced by the House and its committees,” and to help House members to vote intelligently by “enabling all House staff to produce comparative prints showing the differences between versions of legislation, how proposed legislation will amend existing law, and how an amendment may change proposed legislation.”
- Appropriations process observed. The Single Purpose rule, mentioned above, prevents the House from considering one massive, omnibus spending package. Instead, the rules require the House to consider each of the 12 appropriations bills individually. This allows members to vote “nay” on funding bills they object to — Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies bill, for example — while voting “yea” on other funding bills of which they approve — the Defense bill, for example. Congress has not passed all 12 appropriations bills “on time,” (by the end of the fiscal year) since 1997.
- Funding and policy decoupled. The rules prohibit any “appropriation in a general appropriation bill, for an expenditure not previously authorized by law, in excess of the most recent level at which an appropriation for such expenditure has been enacted into law.” This requires policy changes, such as creating new programs or boosting the funding of existing ones, to pass as standalone legislation, not as appropriations riders.
- Spending capped. The rules attempt to cap federal spending at current levels, with multiple provisions aimed at this goal. One rule prohibits any bill “that would cause a net increase in direct spending in excess of $2,500,000,000” ($2.5 billion) over the next 40 years. Another rule places strict limits on considering bills which “have the net effect of increasing mandatory spending.” For example, amendments to appropriations bills may not “propos[e] a net increase in the level of budget authority in the bill.” Yet another rule requires that revisions to funding allocation “not increase direct spending.”
- Saving mechanism introduced. The rules create a new requirement that all appropriations bills contain a section labelled “spending reduction account,” which declares how much the bill reduces spending from the previous year, even if the amount is “$0.” They also provide a special “en bloc” status for amendments that “transfer appropriations from an object or objects in the bill to a spending reduction account.” This means that the House can vote on multiple amendments to cut spending in a single vote.
- Holman rule reestablished. This rule defines reduced expenditures as “the reduction of amounts of money in the bill; (2) the reduction of the number and salary of the officers of the United States; or (3) the reduction of the compensation of any person paid out of the Treasury of the United States.” This enables Congress to exercise direct oversight of executive officials who abuse their power, by eliminating their salaries and positions.
- Tax increases blocked. The rules raise the bar on any attempt to increase the federal income tax. “A Federal income tax rate increase may not be considered as passed or agreed to unless so determined by a vote of not less than three-fifths of the Members voting, a quorum being present.” If every member is present, a federal income tax hike would require 261 votes instead of the current 218.
- CBO estimates revised. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) analyzes legislation and publishes its finding to enables members of Congress to cast an informed vote. A favorable or unfavorable report, even if based upon questionable assumptions, will inevitably be wielded by one side or the other as a political weapon. The new rules set up guardrails for what the CBO should analyze. According to the rules, CBO “shall, to the extent practicable, incorporate the budgetary effects of changes in economic output, employment, capital stock, and other macroeconomic variables. They also “shall include, to the extent practicable, a statement estimating the inflationary effects of the legislation.” These requirements apply to “major” legislation, defined as any bill that will affect the budget by more than 0.25% of GDP, or about $60 billion.
In addition to these rules which will govern how the House conducts its business, the rules package also granted waivers to a select number of bills that will be streamlined and voted on as soon as possible. These include bills:
- For the “development of a plan to increase oil and gas production”;
- “To rescind certain balances made available to the Internal Revenue Service” (which the House passed on Monday as H.R. 23);
- “To authorize the Secretary of Homeland Security to suspend the entry of aliens”;
- “To prohibit the Secretary of Energy from sending petroleum products from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to China”;
- “To amend the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act to direct district attorney and prosecutors offices to report to the Attorney General”;
- “To require the national instant criminal background check system to notify U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the relevant State and local law enforcement agencies whenever the information available to the system indicates that a person illegally or unlawfully in the United States may be attempting to receive a firearm”;
- “To prohibit taxpayer funded abortions”; and
- “To prohibit a health care practitioner from failing to exercise the proper degree of care in the case of a child who survives an abortion or attempted abortion” (essentially the Born Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act).
Thus, these are the five immediate policy priorities of the House Republican majority: abortion, border security, crime, energy, and the IRS.
“For far too long, Democrats have run roughshod over the norms and practices of the people’s house, weaponizing the rules of the House to protect themselves and the Biden administration from proper oversight,” said Rep. Michelle Fischbach (R-Minn.). “That ends today.”
Joshua Arnold is a staff writer at The Washington Stand.