Changes to Partisan Floor Procedure

The D.C. office out of session is a completely different atmosphere than when Congress is in session.  During August recess, staffers finally have the opportunity to take time off (which most of my office took advantage of), leaving the current office environment to consist of the interns, our supervisor Rachel, and usually one or two legislative assistants.  The best way to describe the drastic reduction in pace is the dress code; as soon as recess hit, everyone on the Hill House side dressed extremely casually, switching from full suits to jeans and flip flops.  Among the laid-back atmosphere, there is greater opportunity to ask staffers questions and get to learn more about the ins-and-out of working on the Hill.  Communication among staffers in general during August is casual, too, and there is no push to accomplish tasks quickly, but rather to slowly prepare for the fast-pace to come in September.

Given the lack of frenetic work in August, this week I talked to the Legislative Director, Liz, about how her job changed from working on the minority side the past four years that Congresswoman Rice was in office, to now when Democrats hold the majority.  She explained there are obvious increases in responsibilities for her specifically (since she handles the Congresswoman’s primary committee assignment) because from the majority flip, the Congresswoman elevated from Ranking Member to Chairwoman of the Border Security subcommittee in the Homeland Security committee.  Her committee’s work faces intense media scrutiny due to the humanitarian crisis at the border, which has led to increases in office correspondences with press, inquiries from constituents, and coordination of co-delegation trips to the border and detention facilities.  As a result, Liz has much more pressure and increased number of deadlines to meet while working with all of the Homeland Security Committee professional staff.  On top of the Congresswoman’s increased leadership responsibilities on Homeland, she gained her a leadership position on the large New Democrat Coalition, which concurrently gives Liz more responsibilities.  Liz helps Congresswoman Rice prepare her legislative priorities and determine both the stakeholders and their opinions for any important decision the coalition makes.

But while it was interesting to learn about how some of Liz’s daily responsibilities changed based on Congresswoman Rice’s leadership roles, I was interested to learn about the shift in organizational culture overall on the Hill.  As I’ve talked about in prior posts, I’ve had a fascination with the Rules committee and the level of power Members on that committee wield.  Liz explained to me how the change in House leadership, while good for Democrats to finally push forward some agenda priorities, has been very chaotic, due to how the Rules committee changed to allow for greater minority party input.

The Rules committee is responsible for determining how legislation can be considered on the floor; they take up the bills that the House leadership, like the Speaker, advocates for.  The “rule” or House resolution they sponsor describes how much time is given for debate on a bill, if amendments can be added to a bill, and if so, which amendments can be considered by the House Committee as a Whole.  In the past, the Rules committee chairmen have only put forward ‘closed rules’ on bills – meaning that when the legislation gets to the Committee as a Whole for debate, no amendments are added for debate, and no one can motion for additional amendments.  The current Chairman has attempted to make the committee more transparent, and he has allowed most bills to have ‘structured rules,’ meaning that certain amendments can be considered on the floor by the Committee as a Whole.  The transparency aspect of ‘structured rules’ is that the Chairman has been much more lenient on allowing many Republican amendments to receive consideration, whereas in the past, prior chairmen barred Democrat amendments to the fullest extent possible, and mostly put forward amendments from majority party Members. From allowing more amendments and including the opposition in the full House’s debate, the Democratic Chairman is setting precedent towards a more congenial and bipartisan Rules committee.

How this impacts Liz is that it significantly increases the volume of preparation the Congresswoman needs before she votes.  The example Liz provided was when I helped them organize a spreadsheet of the 435 National Defense Appropriations Act (NDAA) amendments in the beginning of my internship. Within the 435 amendments, there was a relatively even divide between Democratic and Republican sponsored items, since the Rules committee is working towards more bipartisanship.  Since Congresswoman Rice consults Liz prior to every vote, Liz needs to be as prepared as possible, especially since the Congresswoman votes more purple than she does blue.  Also, as a tangent, but similarly related to civility within House floor debate procedures, there has been a recent Rules change to allow for immediate consideration of any bills with over 270 cosponsors – essentially eliminating the backlog for important bipartisan legislation that can get trapped in the process without the Speaker or House Leadership’s immediate attention.

Overall, while the current system in the Rules committee increases civility within the House debate procedure and organizational culture, it diverts attention away from Democratic legislative priorities.  While I acknowledge that this is a partisan opinion and colleagues across the aisle may feel differently, according to Liz, Republican Chairmen of the Rules committee previously wielded power to stifle Democrat priorities (especially with regards to defense discretionary spending), and to push forward predominantly Republican legislation to the full House floor.  The current system reflects increased representation of both sides’ priorities (despite that the votes don’t pan out for the minority party), and works towards changing the purely partisan mechanism towards getting legislation passed.