Sunday, March 29, 2009

Considered Forthwith: The House Rules Committee

Crossposted at Congress Matters.

As promised and requested, this is the first in a new series about the various standing, special, and joint committees in the House and Senate.

The first topic is the House Committee on Rules. We're look at your committee, chairwoman Louise M. Slaughter (NY-28). (As an incidental side note for folks not familiar with the process, the committee chairs are members of the party controlling the chamber. The ranking member is sort of like a vice chair, who is a member of the opposition party. Therefore, until the the GOP is done with their 40 years in the political wilderness, the chairs will all be Democrats and the ranking members will all be Republicans.)

I am also trying to think of a good title for this series. I considered "Better know a committee," but that is too Colbertish. Besides, he might get a segment of the International Space Station named for him. I'm accepting suggestions.

On to the committee...

The Rules Committee does not have the same "sex appeal" of Appropriations or "gravity" of Armed Services. However, the House Rules Committee plays a key role in the legislative process and can effectively kill or save legislation. The composition of the the committee is 2:1 plus one for the majority party. The members are:

Full Committee

Louise M. Slaughter NY-28 (chair)
James P. McGovern MA-3
Alcee L. Hastings FL-23
Doris Matsui CA-5
Dennis Cardoza CA-18
Michael Arcuri NY-24
Ed Perlmutter CO-7
Chellie Pingree ME-1
Jared Polis CO-2

David Dreier CA-26 (ranking member)
Lincoln Diaz-Balart FL-21
Pete Sessions TX-32
Virginia Foxx NC-5

Legislative & Budget Process Subcommittee
Hastings(chair), Pingree, Cardoza, Polis, Slaughter, Diaz-Balart, Dreier

Rules & Organization of the House Subcommittee
McGovern(chair), Matsui, Arcuri, Perlmutter, Slaughter, Sessions, Foxx

I won't rehash the history of the Rules Committee. Instead, I will be detailing its current work. The Rules committee does have an interesting and rather extensive history on their website, accessible here. Knowing the history is important to understanding why the committee functions as it does. My concern, though, is how the committee works. I will mention that Rules was one of the original "select committees" from the First Congress and was formed on the second day of the First Congress.

Often called the "Speaker's Committee" the Rules Committee effectively functions as an extension of the House leadership. The Rules Committee is unique in that the Speaker hand selects her party's members of the committee. This means that the Speaker essential has almost total control over the committee.

The primary responsibility of the Rules Committee is to write a special rule for most bills that will be considered on the floor of the House and reviewing the rules of the Chamber. In addition, the committee has jurisdiction over the rules of the chamber and the budget process.

The full explanation of the committee's jurisdiction is here and the full text of the committee's rules is here. It is noteworthy that the only people who may offer testimony before the committee are other members of the House.

Special Rules

After a committee has considered a piece of legislation and written a report on that bill, the chair will typically request a special rule from the House Rules Committee and can request a specific type of rule. The special rule specifies how the bill will be debated and what amendments are in order.

The special rules also allows for bills to come up for consideration out of turn. According to chamber rules, bills are considered in the chronological order that they are listed on the House calendar. Because of this rule, important bills might not be considered before adjournment. The Rules Committee has the power to give a bill priority, effectively moving it to the front of the queue. (A bill can also come up by unanimous consent, special calendar days, suspension of the rules, and if a bill has privileged status. Appropriations and budget bills are among those with privileged status.)

There are four types of rules:

Open – Permits general debate for a certain period of time (the amount of time depends on the importance of the legislation and the legislative schedule) and allows any Member to offer an amendment under the five minute rule, provided that the amendment is in compliance with the standing rules of the House and the Budget Act.

Modified Open – Permits general debate and allows any Member to offer a germane amendment under the five minute rule subject only to an overall time limit on the amendment process, and/or a requirement that amendments be pre-printed in the Congressional Record.

Modified Closed/Structured -- Permits general debate for a certain period of time, but the Rules Committee limits the amendments that may be offered to those designated in the special rule or Rules Committee report to accompany the special rule. This type of rule may also preclude amendments to a particular portion of the bill, although the remainder of the bill may be completely open to amendment.

Closed – Permits debate for a certain period of time but permits no amendments to be offered.

source: The Rules Committee: Role and Process

Under the committee rules, the committee is to consult with the House leadership and the chair of the referring committee on the type of rule that is assigned to a bill. This is an important point, because this is a primary way the Speaker of the House and the leadership control the house. If Speaker Pelosi wants a bill considered as written, chances are good that the bill will get a closed amendment. If she wants a bill defeated, it will probably get an open rule in the hopes that the bill will be amended and debated to death.

Here's an example of a modified closed/structured rule (H.R. 1404, the Federal Land Assistance, Management and Enhancement (FLAME) Act) for your reading pleasure. Notice that only 13 amendments are considered in order. This also provides a way for the leadership to keep party members in line: a member really does not want to risk being frozen out of the amendment process.

The floor procedure includes a debate and vote on the rule before consideration of the actual bill.

Following adoption of a rule, the Speaker also has the option of convening the committee of the whole. The committee of the whole includes every member of the House. They don't actually go anywhere, but the House operates under a different set of rules that allow for greater debate and amendments. If you are watching C-Span, you will see the Sergeant at Arms move the mace from the pedestal at the Speaker's Right to a pedestal at the Sergeant-At-Arm's desk. The Committee of the Whole can debate bills and offer amendments, but the full house must reconvene to take action on bills.

A note on Senate Procedures

Bills considered by the Senate do not get a rule. Bills come to the floor of the Senate by unanimous consent. Unlike the House rule referenced above, a unanimous consent agreement is rarely longer than a few sentences. This reflects one example of the greater discretion afforded to Senators under the chamber rules. The two most important differences are that Senators typically have unlimited time to talk and can offer amendments from the floor without going through a Rules Committee process. As a practical aspect of this difference in rules, it is hard enough to do business in the Senate with 100 members able to offer amendments. Allowing the same thing in a chamber of 435 members would be completely unworkable.

Other roles of the committee

The other primary role of the Rules Committee is to consider changes of rules for the House. This is defined as the committee's oversight role. The committee has until Feb. 15 of the year to inform the House Committee on Oversight and Reform and the Committee on House Administration of its plans for the year. Here is the plan for this year. pdf file. This year's plans range from the substantive (eliminating term limits for committee chairs and directing the Homeland Security Committee to increase its oversight functions) to the cosmetic (rewriting all rules to make the gender neutral and directing the clerk to only read those committees whose chairs will be calling up bills on Calendar Wednesday). Be sure to read the minority response for a good chuckle about Republicans whining about a lack of openness in government.

The Rules Committee also has responsibility for reconciling language in bills that went through multiple referrals. If more than one committee considers a bill, the resulting language from the separate markups will almost certainly be different. The Rules Committee decides which version the full House will consider.

As previously noted, the Rules Committee has two subcommittees. Again, these committees do not directly consider legislation. Instead they focus on the process of considering legislation. The legislative process is anything but static.

The Legislative & Budget Process Subcommittee is charged with considering "measures or matters related to relations between the Congress and the Executive Branch." The subcommittee is primarily concerned with oversight of the budget process and any changes to the various budget acts that govern the process.

The Rules& Organization of the House Subcommittee has "general responsibility for measures or matters related to process and procedures of the House, relations between the two Houses of Congress, relations between the Congress and the Judiciary, and internal operations of the House." The subcommittee focuses on the jurisdiction of the various committees and the overall committee structure.

Other resources
Be sure to check out the committee's webpage. The front page outlines rules under consideration. This is a useful way to keep up to date about pending legislation. There are also links for understanding how congress works and the Legislative Process Program. Unfortunately, this is only open to Members and staffers, but the committee does offer a lot of educational materials from upcoming sessions.