Will Democrats' Timetable Trump ‘Regular Order' Pledge?

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The Democratic takeover of the House two weeks ago took me back to 1994, when the Republican minority was suddenly thrust into the majority. Nothing concentrates the mind and quickens the pulse more than the prospect of taking the reins of power after being without them for so long.

There's no time to savor the taste of victory as brains and bodies hurtle into hyper-drive — simultaneously mapping strategies, drafting legislation, hiring new staff, packing and moving offices and attending endless rounds of meetings. Coffee becomes the fuel of choice that propels the new majority to T(akeover)-Day, when gavels change hands and the new Speaker sets the tone and agenda for the next two years.

Whereas Republicans in 1994 didn't have a clue what majority status was all about (no GOP Member or staffer was left from the party's previous majority in 1953-54), House Democrats today still have a strong bench of 82 veterans from previous Democratic Congresses. Several even wielded committee or subcommittee gavels. So the learning curve should not be that steep.

Are there any lessons from the 104th Congress that might help Democrats achieve a smooth transition back to power? The big one that sticks in my mind is the contradiction between the type of deliberative legislative process Republicans wanted to establish at the committee level and what the "Contract with America" instead demanded of committees.

It's hard to believe now that one of the basic thrusts of the Republican reform platform developed over several decades was to restore committees to their rightful place as the real workshops of Congress. To shift legislative responsibilities back to committees, Republicans put in place new House rules on the opening day of the 104th Congress that eliminated three committees and 32 subcommittees, limited Members' committee and subcommittee assignments, abolished proxy voting, required adoption of committee oversight agendas and mandated publication of roll call votes in committee reports.

The contract exercise, on the other hand, was a three-month forced march (then-Speaker Newt Gingrich [R-Ga.] preferred to call it "basic training"), involving two-dozen bills from the 10-plank manifesto — many under a relatively open amendment process (ask then-Government Reform and Oversight Chairman Bill Clinger [R-Pa.] about that two-week floor marathon on the unfunded mandate bill).

The accelerated timetable sidetracked any notion of restoring a responsible committee process. The contract bills were all written in advance as part of the pledge to bring them to a vote within the first 100 days, without change. This meant there would be perfunctory hearings (at best), followed by truncated markups in which no amendments could be adopted.

The 100-day contract served as a brilliant party unifying and campaigning device, but it proved to be a terrible model for thoughtful lawmaking. There was a lot of under-the-breath mumbling and even some over-the-breath grumbling among majority Members about the warp(ed)-speed process. And there was a collective sigh of relief when the 100-day ordeal ended a few days ahead of schedule with a West Front celebration under a banner reading, "Promises Made, Promises Kept."

Although the leadership kept promising a return to the "regular order" in committees, that goal has yet to be fully realized. Strict party governance and discipline became the norm for a fragile majority that was always just a few Members away from losing an important vote or control of the House. Leadership intervention to save legislation at the last minute by rewriting it or holding votes open for extended periods became commonplace. Committees suffered under shorter and shorter work weeks, foreclosing any chance for meaningful deliberation or oversight. Benjamin Franklin was right when he observed, "It's easier to prevent bad habits than it is to break them."

Now come the Democrats, sounding much like the Republicans of '94, promising a return to regular order and a more open and deliberative process in committee and on the floor. However, instead of a 100-day Contract with America, they are promising a 100-hour "New Direction for America."

Speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told The Associated Press in an interview published Oct. 6 that on Day 1 the Democrats will adopt new House rules to "break the link between lobbyists and legislation." Presumably this is not a threat to repeal the First Amendment right to petition the government but instead a reference to the ethics and lobby rules in the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act on the Democrats' agenda. The 80-page bill contains 42 provisions, many of which are statutory changes. So it's possible the House also could take up a version of that bill on opening day, just as Republicans brought up the Congressional Accountability Act on opening day of the 104th Congress.

On Day 2, Pelosi told the AP, they will pass all the recommendations issued by the 9/11 commission. The last time I looked, the only bill promising to do that was introduced by Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) in the House and Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) in the Senate. It runs 201 pages and has been referred to 12 House committees.

In the time remaining before the 100-hour clock runs out, Democrats will: raise the minimum wage; cut in half the interest rate on student loans; allow the government to negotiate lower Medicare drug prices with pharmaceutical companies; broaden the types of stem cells eligible for government-funded research; restore pay as you go budgeting; and pass legislation "achieving energy independence."

As one wag put it: "And to think it took the good Lord six days to create the heavens and earth." One can only hope that the 100 legislative hours will be consumed in small bites, with plenty of time in between for committee hearings, markups and bill reports. That might at least reassure committees that they are once again full partners in the legislative process and are not being forced back into the bad habits of their predecessors.

Don Wolfensberger is director of the Congress Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.


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