Congressmen Ami Bera, David Cicilline, Rodney Davis and Adam Kinzinger talk problem solving.
No Labels unveiling of our Make Congress Work! action plan builds on a history of previous efforts to fix the institution. However, No Labels' plan is unique in that this push is coming from outside the Congress, whereas past efforts to reform the rules have come from members themselves.
Historically, important rule changes have been most common after “wave elections,” or elections that cause a massive change in the political system -- below are examples of rule reforms undertaken over the past 60 years:
1958 -- Liberals Solidify Support
The 1958 election occurred in the middle of a recession and brought in many northern, liberal Democratic congressmen, particularly in the House. These new northern liberals clashed with the traditionally southern, conservative leadership of the Democratic Party. In 1959, these freshman congressmen formed the Democratic Study Group (DSG), a group of liberal Democratic congressmen who collaborated on wide-ranging issues. The DSG would be the impetus for many reforms that have been credited with forcing much of the Kennedy/Johnson agenda past the conservative Democratic congressional leadership.
The most well-known of these reforms was the push to expand the House Rules Committee. In an attempt to conduct legislation past the leaders of the committee so that it could receive a general vote on the House floor, the DSG wished to increase the number of members on the Rules Committee. This diluted the southern Democrats’ influence so they couldn’t halt civil rights legislation in committee. The DSG did this by aligning themselves with liberal Republicans and convincing members of the Democratic leadership. (Zelizer 2005)
1974 -- Watergate Babies Increase Transparency
Members of the 1974 class in Congress were dubbed the “Watergate babies,” from the Watergate scandal that had forced Nixon to resign just a few months before their election. As freshmen, they too revolted against the party’s southern leadership, causing three different committee chairmen to lose their positions. (Zelizer 2005) The next year, the Senate was pushed to adopt the so-called “sunshine rules” of the House, opening up legislative mark-up sessions to public scrutiny. (Dewhirst and Rausch 2007) Before the sunshine rules were passed, the committee mark-up sessions were closed-door, meaning that almost no one could see what happened except the senators and select officials. With the introduction of the sunshine rules, these committee sessions became open so that anyone - press or public - could see what happened, with rare exceptions for issues involving national security.
1994 -- The Republican Revolution
The Republican Revolution of 1994 swept a Republican majority into power in both chambers of Congress for the first time since the 1952 elections. (Mack 2001) The Republicans benefited from widespread discontent at a Democratic Party that was perceived as too far to the left. In order to crystallize this advantage, then-Minority Leader Newt Gingrich sold the Republican Party’s “Contract with America,” a series of policy proposals that also included eight rule changes for congressional proceedings. Each of these was implemented to varying degrees.
Among the changes included the banning of proxy votes (when one congressman has another one vote in his stead) and the creation of a rule that stated that all future laws must apply to Congress as well. Some others included requiring a three-fifths majority to raise taxes and limiting the terms of committee chairs to six years. (Republican)
2006 -- Democrats Promise to Rein in Washington Corruption
In 2006, the Democrats managed to gain a majority within both houses of Congress, riding on a wave of widespread frustration with corruption that was perceived as endemic within the institution. In response, Congress instituted pay-as-you-go budget rules (sometimes called PayGo), meaning all future expenditures Congress issued had to be paid for by revenue increases or spending cuts. In addition, both houses issued variations upon a principle of having all earmarks in bills disclosed and, like the Republican Revolution before them, raised the number of days Congress spent in Washington. (Mann, Binder, and Reynolds 2007)
2010 -- Tea Party Shakes Up Washington
In 2010, following another round of frustration with congressional malfunction, the Republicans gained a large majority in the House thanks to backing from the Tea Party. Republicans then issued many rule reforms within the House, including requiring that all bills include a clause indicating where the government’s constitutional authority to pass the law comes from and switching from PayGo to cut-as-you-go, or CutGo, where all measures increasing spending must be accompanied by spending decreases in other programs. They also reversed the Gephardt Rule, which allowed the debt ceiling to rise automatically when necessary. One reform that was lauded by the Sunlight Foundation was a rule that required all bills to be posted online at least 72 hours before a vote on the bill could be held. (Anon.)
2011 -- No Labels Aims to Make Congress Work!
No Labels is building upon this tradition of reform with our action plan to change the rules and make Congress work again. However, we can’t do it without your help. Please click here to sign on in support of our 12-point plan today.
Anon. House Republicans Release Proposed 112th Congress Rules Package. Committee on Rules - Republicans.
Dewhirst, Robert E., and John David Rausch. 2007. Encyclopedia of the United States Congress. Infobase Publishing.
Republican Contract with America. The United States House of Representatives.
Mack, Charles S. 2001. Business strategy for an era of political change. Greenwood Publishing Group.
Mann, Thomas E., Sarah A. Binder, and Molly Reynolds. 2007. Is The Broken Branch on the Mend? Mending the Broken Branch. Brookings Institution, October.
Zelizer, Julian E. 2005. The Politics of Reform in Congressional History. Speech presented at the Congressional Breakfast Seminar Series, April 18, National History Center.