Just the Facts

Five Facts on the Proposal to Reform the Rules Governing Debate in the House

By No Labels
July 30, 2018 | Blog

On July 25 members of the bipartisan House Problem Solvers Caucus unveiled their Break the Gridlock rules reform package, which is designed to encourage bipartisan cooperation in to make Congress work more effectively for the American people.  Chief among the goals in the reform package is to “encourage and reward consensus driven governing,” and one proposal to achieve it is to require a three-fifths super majority for passage and consideration of legislation under closed rules.  Such a rule change would incentivize open debate and a return to regular order.  Here are five facts on the proposal to reform the rules governing debate in the House.

When a bill is brought to the floor of the House of Representatives for a vote, the “special rules” attached to the proposed legislation determine what amendments can be offered and who can offer them

Rules can be viewed on a spectrum, ranging from open to closed with an assortment of options in between. If an open rule is attached to a bill, any member of the House can propose amendments to it. Meanwhile, a closed rule prohibits members from proposing amendments to the bill, unless the amendment had been recommended by the committee reporting the bill. Finally, the majority of rules reported by the Rules Committee contain structured rules, which contain limits on the number of amendments that can be proposed and on the length of debate.

The Rules Committee determines whether a bill will have open or closed rules

Responsible for developing the “rules managing consideration of legislation on the floor,” this body is the House’s most powerful permanent committee. However, the Rules Committee is weighted more heavily in favor of the majority party— which occupies 9 of the 13 seats—than any other committee. Considering that members of the Rules Committee are chosen by the speaker and minority leader, the House leadership has almost complete control over the rules under which legislation is considered.

There have been zero open rule bills in the 115th Congress

In contrast, roughly 85% of bills between 1977 and 1979 were considered under open rules. The current House Rules Committee has introduced a record number of closed-rule bills to the floor of the House.  In May 2018, the committee passed its 84th bill with closed rules, breaking the previous record of 83, set by the 113th Congress. According to the Bipartisan Policy Center, the 106th (1999-2001) Congress was the last time there were as many open rules introduced as there were closed rules.

A bill in the House must attain a simple majority (218 votes when all seats are occupied) in order to pass — a threshold that the majority of recent landmark legislation has barely surpassed

This was the case with President Trump’s Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, which passed the House by a vote of only 227-205— with no support from the Democrats and 13 nays from Republicans. In this case, the Rules Committee closed the bill to amendments and allowed only four hours of general debate. Closed rules were also implemented while the House considered the American Heath Care Act of 2017 (AHCA), which was designed to repeal and replace President Obama’s landmark Affordable Care Act (ACA). Because four seats in the House were vacant at the time of the vote, the bill passed by a 217-213 margin, with only Republican support.  The bill was unable to pass the Senate, due in large part to a lack of bipartisan backing.

The Break the Gridlock package hopes to “encourage and reward consensus driven governing” by requiring a super majority to introduce legislation under closed rules

The bipartisan House Problem Solvers Caucus has introduced this rules package to change the way the House operates. Currently, the Rules Committee decides which bills have a fighting chance, but the system was originally designed for members of Congress to “gather information, consult with experts and various stakeholders who will be impacted by legislative changes, and hold a robust and open debate between and within the political parties.” By requiring a super majority for bills introduced under closed rules, the Problem Solvers Caucus hopes to incentivize real and constructive debate on all legislation that passes through the chamber.


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