Changing the Rules in the House

December 21, 1992

For Republican representatives in Congress, Dec. 8, 1992, is a date which will live in infamy.

On that date, House Democrats approved giving the five non-voting delegates from the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Samoa, Guam and the Virgin Islands -- all of whom are Democrats -- a vote in the House of Representatives. In the past they have had a vote only in committee meetings.

Technically, the delegates would still just be casting a committee vote -- in "the Committee of the Whole on the State of the Union." But that is a parliamentary device that allows the full House to act more efficiently and expeditiously than when it sits formally as the House of Representatives.

In this "committee" mode, a relatively small number of members can shape legislation, before it must be voted up or down by the full House in regular session. Thus the majority party's power and that of the majority leadership are both enhanced. Giving the majority five more votes means that on some close issues, the majority party will have a stronger grip on affairs. Given that the 1992 election had as a principal theme ending "gridlock" in Washington, this is a desirable change.

One reason there has been gridlock in Washington in previous years, even when Democrats controlled the House of Representatives and the White House, is that power in legislative affairs has become diffused, with too many committee and subcommittee chairs unresponsive to the majority membership and its elected leadership. Democrats moved to make the speaker and his team more influential in 1993. This did not go as far in cutting chairs down to size as some reformers, such as Rep. Ben Cardin (a new member of the leadership's policy-making Steering Committee), proposed, but it was a good start.

Some changes endorsed by the Democrats are just wrong. These are the ones limiting the number and timing of speeches by representatives. This "reform" seems to be aimed at Republicans' use of C-Span to go directly to the people with ideas -- and criticism of the Democratic leadership. This is not reform, it is arrogant censorship, and it should be junked when the House formally adopts rules early next year.

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