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House Democrats are making changes to decentralize power

Democrats are proposing a return to regular order in their new rules package, making it easier for bipartisan bills to make it to the floor.

Incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi talks to reporters during her weekly news conference.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

House Democrats have released their new proposal to change rules for how the House of Representatives conducts its business for the next two years — and there’s a lot in it.

Democrats are doing a number of things to decentralize power from leadership and open up the process of legislating.

The rules package is an important statement that shows what issues Democrats are elevating in their first few weeks of the session and how they intend to govern over the next two years. Basically, Democrats are trying to show they will behave much differently than House Republicans have over the past eight years.

With public trust in Congress at historic lows, Democrats are taking a number of steps to strengthen ethics rules and bring back regular order to the legislative process — giving bills with broad bipartisan support a chance to go through committee even if they don’t have leadership’s blessing. They are also making it much easier to raise the debt ceiling and are getting rid of a rule that allows any member of Congress to move to get rid of the current House speaker.

There are new rules pertaining to the budget and a number of progressive priorities — a commitment to establish a select committee to tackle climate change, and intervening to stop President Donald Trump’s attacks on the Affordable Care Act.

“We asked every Member for their ideas, from the longest-serving to the newly elected, and spent months vetting ideas,” said Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA), incoming chair of the House Rules Committee, in a statement. “This package is stronger because of such a collaborative process.”

The new rules package will be among the first orders of business when Democrats gavel in the new session on Thursday.

What’s in the new rules package?

Much of what is in this package can be viewed as a direct rebuke to Republicans’ style of governing during their years in the majority.

There are a number of significant changes to rules surrounding the budget, which House Republicans have used to cut government spending over the years. Democrats plan to bring back the Gephardt Rule, which makes it easier to raise the debt ceiling when Congress passes a budget.

They’re also replacing a Republican pay-as-you-go rule — “cut-go” — which requires spending to be offset with budget cuts (a rule that’s often waived), with a provision that says spending can also be offset with tax increases.

Democrats’ rule establishes a “point of order” against any bill that increases the deficit over 10 years, unless the spending is designated as an “emergency.” The point of order can be waived with a House majority.

But PAYGO, in particular, has the potential to set off a revolt from the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. Already, at least two members, Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) and incoming Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), are threatening to vote against a rules package that includes PAYGO.

Democrats are also essentially trying to make the process of legislating more democratic. For instance, if a bill has 290 co-sponsors, it will automatically be up for consideration in committee and have a path to the House floor.

“This really came out of, we kept getting measures where we knew we would have enough votes to get to the House floor for debate and a vote, but you couldn’t get these things like immigration reform, in particular, actually to the floor,” Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ) told me. “We all started saying, ‘This is absurd.’”

Members of Congress will also have 72 hours to read major pieces of legislation before they go to the floor for a vote (a direct counter to Republicans jamming through the tax bill and other massive bills just hours after the final version was introduced).

Democrats are also proposing to get rid of the “motion to vacate the chair” rule, which allows any member of Congress propose the speaker be removed. House Freedom Caucus Chair Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC) used this to try to get rid of former House Speaker John Boehner in 2013, and Democrats don’t want to risk conservatives trying the same thing with likely incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

“That threat really disrupts the will of the majority,” Gottheimer said.

There are a lot of other things as well — new provisions requiring members accused of sexual harassment to settle claims with their own money rather than taxpayer dollars, allowing members to wear religious headdress including headscarves, and banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

Why do rules matter?

On their face, rules changes aren’t big news. But they are still important; the rules package passed at the beginning of every new session dictates how Congress should operate and function.

Right now, polling from Gallup shows that the public trust in American institutions is extremely low, and Congress is one of the institutions Americans are most suspicious of.

Just 11 percent of Americans had either a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in Congress in 2018, compared to 46 percent of the public who said they had confidence in the institution.

House Democrats know the vast majority of Americans don’t pay attention to the minutiae of how Congress operates and all the rules surrounding how bills are brought to the floor and how budgets are passed. But they know there is an overriding sense that things in Washington are broken, evidenced by how partisan politics is and how few bipartisan compromises have been made over the past few years.

Separate from the rules package, Democrats are also working on a broad reform package known as HR 1, which strengthens ethics rules, proposes dramatic campaign finance reform, and boosts voting rights. It’s their first bill of the year and will be formally introduced soon in Congress. While it has little to no shot of even making it to the US Senate, it’s still a sign that they are trying to get serious about restoring trust in their party and the institution as a whole.

“We can do better, and especially in this era of divided government we’re going into, if we actually want to solve problems and get things done for folks, we have to work together,” Gottheimer said.