House Problem Solvers are bringing real change to Congress

By Margaret White

For The Hill
July 23, 2019

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Meaningful reform comes slowly to our tradition-bound Congress. But we’re starting to see the fruits of hard-fought changes wrought this yearby the House’s bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus.

These results-oriented lawmakers were troubled to see House leaders (in both parties) sometimes bury legislation that was supported by many rank-and-file members but opposed by the power elite. So they worked diligently for, and eventually achieved, a change in House rules that makes this heavy-handed tactic almost impossible.

House Democrats and Republicans are beginning to use the revised rule, and people are taking notice. It hasn’t yet applied to a highly contentious measure, which would really rattle the Capitol’s walls. But it’s solidly in place for when such an occasion arises, and the Problem Solvers deserve credit for that.

The new rule keeps top House leaders from squelching any bill that has at least 290 co-sponsors, or two-thirds of the House membership. Such a measure would clearly pass if given a floor vote, but leaders over the years have sometimes smothered such bills for political reasons.

Recently, several bills have been expedited under the new “290” or “consensus calendar” rule. One is the “Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act,” authored by Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.). It reduces the visa backlogs for immigrants with particular in-demand skills.

Another is the “Military Surviving Spouses Equity Act,” led by Reps. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) and John Yarmuth (D-Ky.). It would repeal the so-called “widow’s tax,” so spouses of service members who die during active duty will not see their benefits reduced.

The Problem Solvers Caucus Co-Chairs — Reps. Tom Reed (R-N.Y.) and Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.) – hailed the progress.

“Last January, members of the Problem Solvers Caucus fought for meaningful changes to the House rules, including ensuring that when a bill receives 290 co-sponsors it receives priority consideration on the House floor,” they said in a statement. “Today, the American people are seeing the benefits of those rule changes as common-sense, broadly bipartisan bills are finally receiving the up or down vote they deserve on the floor.”

Under the new rule, once a bill reaches 290 co-sponsors, a legislative clock begins. If the primary committee of jurisdiction doesn’t report out the bill by the 25th legislative day, it is placed on the new “Consensus Calendar.” House leaders must bring consensus calendars to a floor vote fairly regularly.

Other legislation that has benefitted from the 290 rule includes a measure to ensure continued benefits for first-responders who suffered health problems related to the 9/11 terror attacks.

The new rule’s impact is likely to expand as lawmakers become more familiar with it.

“It’s taking time for people to realize that this is a resource available for them to get bipartisan legislation on to the floor,” Gottheimer told Roll Call. “And now, more and more people are approaching us, the Problem Solvers, and saying, ‘Can we work together to get to 290?’”

House leaders have acknowledged the new rule’s purpose and potency.

“The intent was so you couldn’t just bottle up something,” Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) told Roll Call. “We get that.”

It takes courage to fight for bipartisan achievements in a political environment where many see collaboration as a dirty word. The Problem Solvers deserve our thanks and support bringing about real change that can chip away at our government’s abysmal gridlock and dysfunction.

Margaret White is executive director of No Labels.