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April 1, 2015

Posts by Don Wolfensberger

43 Posts

March 30, 2015

House GOP Restores Budget Game of Thrones | Procedural Politics

When Republicans regained control of the House in 1995 after 40 years in the minority, they vowed to eliminate the Democrats’ “king-of-the-hill” process for voting on budget resolution substitutes.

Since 1982, the Democratic-controlled Rules Committee had been issuing special rules on budget resolutions that allowed for votes on substitute amendments by various factions, notwithstanding the disposition of a previous substitute. Under ordinary amending procedures, once an amendment in the nature of a substitute is adopted, no further amendments are allowed.

The “king-of-the-mountain” approach, as it was originally called, provided that if more than one substitute is adopted, the last one adopted prevails, even if it has a smaller majority. Not coincidentally, the last substitute to be offered would always be the Democratic budget reported by the Budget Committee. Full story

March 16, 2015

Cotton Balls Up Diplomatic Protocol With Letter | Procedural Politics

(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Cotton (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Senator Tom Cotton’s “open letter” to the leaders of Iran on negotiations over its nuclear program ran into a buzzsaw of criticism from the president, vice president, our negotiating partners and members of Congress from both parties. The main criticism: Senators should not thrust themselves directly into the middle of ongoing negotiations between the U.S. and other countries.

The Arkansas Republican and his 46 Senate Republican co-signers have been accused of everything from trying to blow up the negotiations and undermining the president to giving aid and comfort to the enemy and betraying the national interest. Full story

March 10, 2015

Lott-Daschle Reform Bars Bill-Blocking Actions | Procedural Politics

House Republicans painted themselves and the Senate into a corner by making Department of Homeland Security funding after Feb. 27 contingent on rolling back President Barack Obama’s unilateral immigration actions. Surely, they were fantasizing a corner with a hidden trap door and safe room.

Instead, a more realistic escape route appeared out of nowhere — a rope ladder thrown down by a federal district court judge in Texas who stayed the president’s 2014 immigration action pending disposition of legal challenges to it by 26 states. Since judicial appeals from the dueling orders could take months, the judge’s injunction freed Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky to propose a compromise: a clean DHS funding bill in return for separate consideration of a bill rescinding the president’s 2014 immigration order.

Full story

February 24, 2015

Keystone Process Tells Tale of Two Houses | Procedural Politics

(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Boehner signs the Keystone bill. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Do you remember Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California promising last fall to return the new Congress to the regular order? The initial test came on the first major bill in the well of both houses, the Keystone XL Pipeline Act. Whereas the Senate produced a veritable gusher of amendments with all hands at the wellhead, the House reverted to a narrowly-constricted flow tube controlled by a few valve masters.

Identical House and Senate pipeline bills were introduced on the opening day of the new Congress by two North Dakota Republicans, Rep. Kevin Cramer and Sen. John Hoeven. Both measures were placed on a fast track to the floor the first week of the session. But that’s where the similarities ended. Full story

February 3, 2015

Obama Hints at New Approach to Congress | Procedural Politics

President Woodrow Wilson was affectionately known as, “the schoolmaster in politics,” and “the professor.” President Barack Obama, a great admirer of his progressive predecessor, might better be called, “the professor above politics” given his aversion to working with Congress. However, when he committed to Republicans in this year’s State of the Union address to seek out their ideas and “work with you to make this country stronger,” there was reason to think he really meant it, notwithstanding similar pledges in the past.

Before they entered politics, both Wilson and Obama taught the U.S. Constitution to university students. Wilson the scholar derided the Constitution’s checks and balances as an obsolete impediment to national progress, and the Congress as a diffuse, aimless and ineffectual body run by a group of petty committee barons. What government needed, he wrote, was centralizing party leadership and direction. He thought the British parliamentary system was the most perfect form of government. Full story

January 21, 2015

New Congresses Lead With Legislative Blitzes | Procedural Politics

Most Americans prejudged the new Congress a failure before it even began. According to a CNN/ORC poll taken in mid-December, only 37 percent think the 114th Congress will get more done than its predecessor while 62 percent think it will get less done or be no different. But they could be wrong.

Such negative assessments are understandable given divided party control of government and early pronouncements by the president and congressional leaders drawing lines in the sand over their differences. Oh, there will still be occasional rhetorical nods to the need to work together. But the three Cs of conciliation, cooperation and compromise have yielded for now to cold calculation, calcification and confrontation. Veto pens are being brandished quicker than bills inviting them can be introduced.

Given that, there is good reason to be skeptical about the prospects for the 114th Congress. The modern partisan era is different from the more bipartisan days of the mid-twentieth century. Parties are acting more like parties, and that injects more complexity and delay into the policymaking process. But that is not necessarily bad.

The first act of parties in any new Congress is to articulate their positions early, clearly and often. It is difficult to move forward purposefully until you first determine and announce exactly where you stand and in what direction you are inclined to move. If you arrive on the playing field without any goals, it is unlikely you will score any points.

We are now witnessing both political parties and branches staking-out their territory. It began on day one with majority Republicans in both chambers clearly enunciating their immediate legislative aims. House Democrats weighed-in early as well with their leader’s introduction of the Speaker salted with a multi-point Democratic policy agenda.

That was followed by two minority procedural motions during the rules debate aimed at bringing-up specific legislation within the month. Meantime, the president was pressing his policy proposals around the country in warm-up acts for Tuesday’s State of the Union address.

In the first two weeks of the session, House Republicans brought 13 unreported bills to the floor before committees were even fully organized. Most bills were warmed-up leftovers from the previous Congress that went nowhere in the Senate. All were considered under a closed or highly restrictive amendment process.

House Democrats did the same thing when they recaptured Congress in 2007, rushing to the floor unreported bills they had championed in the previous Congress. They had campaigned on a “Six for ’06” legislative platform otherwise known as “A New Direction for America.” It was a page right out of the House Republicans’ 1994 playbook when they campaigned on “A Contract with America” — a 10-point legislative platform they promised to bring to final floor votes within the first 100 days of the 104th Congress.

The main difference in 2007 was that House Democrats promised to bring their bills to final votes within the first 100 hours. They were able to do that by providing for consideration of five of their measures under a closed amendment process established in their opening day rules package. Republicans had set the precedent for that scenario in 1995 by providing in their rules package for an opening day, closed amendment vote on the Congressional Accountability Act.

Speaker Newt Gingrich’s House Republicans in 1995 paved the way for partisan legislative blitzes at the outset of new Congresses following electoral power shifts. Such a strategy requires quick and closed consideration of priority bills — hardly a showcase for the regular order.

The quick pick of low-hanging fruit can build momentum and confidence for the arduous task ahead of actual governing. Neither party wants to come away from this Congress empty-handed and face angry voters at the polls. Consequently, the 114th Congress will enact some significant laws over the next two years, albeit incremental rather than transformational. And that may be the most we can and should expect.

Don Wolfensberger is a resident scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.

The 114th: CQ Roll Call’s Guide to the New Congress

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January 5, 2015

Opening Day Hoopla Sets Optimistic Tone | Procedural Politics

(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

If the tone set on opening day could determine the success of Congress over the next two years, the scaffolding now encasing the Capitol dome would become a magical power grid of peace and harmony generating a steady source of national policy solutions.

When the opening bell summons the new Congress into session at noon, the House chamber vibrates with electricity as multitudes of members meld in a frenzy of hugs, handshakes, backslaps and laughter. The camaraderie and exchange of verbal olive branches between the speaker and minority leader can only instill hope in the scores of constituents cramming the galleries to watch their newly elected representatives be sworn in. Surely, they think, this portends a new day in our nation’s history. And they’re right: Each new Congress is a blank slate on which it can write its own history of successes and failures.

While this glorious spectacle of democratic renewal is always heartening, the tone set on opening day should not be mistaken for the tune that will eventually play-out. Yes, the founders called it a Congress, meaning “a coming together,” but they fully understood it would not be a harmonic convergence of views, goals and policies. Not only did they grasp that any democratically-elected institution would produce a clashing of interests, they purposely divided responsibilities among the branches to prevent a concentration of power in any one place. As Madison put it in Federalist 51, “ambition must be made to counteract ambition.”

The framers did not fully appreciate that in addition to the Constitution’s separation of powers and attendant checks and balances, political parties would emerge as an additional check on action. That has been especially evident under divided party government which has been the norm for 40 of the last 60 years.

Notwithstanding all the upbeat opening day bonhomie and hoopla, the parties go their separate ways on the two most important votes members will cast: the election of Speaker and the adoption of House rules for the new Congress. The former vote is a recognition that the Speaker, while historically serving as the neutral presiding officer of the House, has also been the majority party’s leader almost since parties first emerged.

The latter vote is a recognition that the majority party fashions rules that allow the will of a House majority eventually to prevail on legislation. Translated, that usually means the rules are designed to expedite consideration and adoption of the majority party’s legislative agenda.

Ironically, the debate on adopting rules for the new House has become a perfunctory slam-dunk, subject to just one-hour of debate and no amendments unless the minority happens to prevail on a procedural vote to commit the resolution with instructions to amend – which it never does.

George B. Galloway, in his 1962 Legislative Reference Service history of the House, recounts how, in the years after the Civil War, it was not unusual for a new House to spend several days debating and amending the rules package recommended by the Rules Committee. In that way, new members could learn the work ways of the institution while senior members could take their measure. That changed with the emergence of party governance in the 1890s and the takeover of the rules origination process by the majority party caucus before a Rules Committee is even appointed.

Those following opening day proceedings on C-SPAN may be baffled that the House chamber and galleries empty immediately after members are sworn-in by the Speaker. The extra television lights are extinguished, and only a handful of members remain in the dimly lit chamber to present and debate the resolution adopting rules for the new Congress. Everyone else has retreated to swearing-in receptions in members’ offices.

It is little consolation to know that the rules from the previous Congress are being re-adopted by reference in the rules resolution with just a few new tweaks. Even though those rules, developed over decades, provide for a “regular order” process of thoughtful, fair and orderly consideration of legislation, they are not self-executing. Instead they have been openly flouted for years through leadership-driven procedural suspensions, interventions and circumventions.

Unfortunately, most members today were not around three and four decades ago when the regular order was regularly observed. However, even if they remained in the chamber for the rules debate they would learn nothing about the old rules being brought forward. Most of the debate will focus instead on the minor new tweaks.

The House would be far better off to postpone consideration of the rules package until day two when all members can participate in an extended discussion of just what the regular order of rules is and why it is so important to learn and adhere to. Obviously, that will require a leadership led effort of reeducation and rededication of the House to a deliberative lawmaking process. But, in the final analysis, it may have as much to do with the reputation and legacy of the 114th Congress as the legislation it enacts.

Don Wolfensberger is a resident scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.

December 23, 2014

Cruz Move Misses Its Constitutional Mark | Procedural Politics

Sen Ted Cruz's antics may have missed the mark as a credible points of order. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Cruz’s antics may have missed the mark as a credible points of order. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

On Saturday, Dec. 13, Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) attempted to block funding for the president’s executive order on immigration by raising what he called “constitutional point of order” against the homeland security portion of the cromnibus appropriations bill. It was a clever eleventh hour gambit to dramatize the issue. However, it completely missed the mark as a credible point of order because it did not cite any provision of the bill as directly violating the Constitution.

Instead, Cruz reeled off provisions he said the president’s executive order contravened. The bill itself neither authorized, condoned or condemned the president’s action. The Homeland Security portion targeted by Cruz simply funds the department and its myriad of activities and responsibilities through next February. Whether the president uses the funds to implement his order is a future contingency beyond the immediate reach of the Senate absent an amendment prohibiting their use for that purpose. That option was precluded by the majority leader’s filling the amendment tree, thereby blocking any amendments to the cromnibus.

Rather than being an assault on the Constitution, the bill belatedly fulfills one of Congress’s most important responsibilities: to make appropriations by law for the operation of the government. Moreover, Divison L of the bill funding the Department of Homeland Security appropriates money for carrying out Congress’s enumerated power “to establish an uniform rule of naturalization,” and with it the implied powers to regulate immigration and protect the borders.

All that is not to say that constitutional objections cannot be raised against certain legislation or amendments. Former Parliamentarian Floyd Riddick’s “Senate Procedure” makes clear that, “Under the uniform practices of the Senate, whenever a question of constitutionality is raised, the Chair submits the question to the Senate for decision.” Unlike on other points of order, the presiding officer does not make a determination either sustaining or overruling the point of order. Thus, on the Cruz point of order, the chair explained, “Under the precedents and practices of the Senate, the Chair has no power or authority to pass on such a point of order,” and “submits the question to the Senate, Is the point of order well taken?” Following the roll call, the chair announced, “On this vote the yeas are 22, the nays are 74. The point of order is not well taken.”

Most of the Senate precedents on constitutional points of order have been over the constitutional question of whether a Senate-originated measure or provision is in violation of the House’s constitutional privilege with respect to originating revenue legislation. The House, on the other hand, has a slightly different way of handling the matter since under House precedents the chair does not construe constitutional points of order nor put the question directly to the House. The chair simply refuses to recognize someone attempting to raise the point of order –a refusal that cannot be appealed and overturned.

Instead, the House may send a Senate-originated revenue measure back to the other body by adopting a so-called “blue slip” resolution, offered by any member, raising a question of the constitutional privileges of the House. By extension, the same method can be used to send a Senate-originated appropriations measure back to the Senate which by precedent must also originate in the House.

The angry backlash in the Senate over Sen. Cruz’s point of order was due in part to its disruptive effect on a weekend senators were promised would be free. But it was also occasioned by the recognition that the point of order was beyond clearly delineated bounds for such an objection. As the Majority Leader Harry Reid explained just before the vote: “The House of Representatives passed this legislation before us in an exercise of its powers under article I of the United States Constitution,” and “this bill has thus, originated in the House within the meaning of the origination clause of the Constitution.”

Reid concluded, in exasperation, “The Constitution(al) objection is completely –completely –without merit and should be rejected.” The Senate overwhelmingly agreed with Reid’s assessment, keeping its powder dry and the government open, at least until next Feb. 27 when the homeland security CR in the bill expires.

Don Wolfensberger is a resident scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.

The 114th: CQ Roll Call’s Guide to the New Congress

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December 9, 2014

Democrats Resurrect Call for Remote Voting | Procedural Politics

Some members were outraged Duckworth was denied a proxy vote. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Some members were outraged Duckworth was denied a proxy vote. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Republicans may think they put proxy voting in its grave when they changed House rules in 1995 to ban it in committees. But the issue resurfaced last month when a dispute arose in the Democratic Caucus over Illinois Rep. Tammy Duckworth’s request to vote by proxy in caucus elections because she was about to give birth to her first child.

Three months ago another Democrat, Rep. Eric Swalwell of California urged the Rules Committee to put forward a new House rule permitting members to cast their floor votes electronically from their districts on non-controversial bills early in the week.

Some younger members are so attuned to high-tech solutions in their daily lives that they are beginning to think democratic decision-making can be carried-out more efficiently using electronic joy sticks. Why should elected representatives need to be in a particular place at a certain time to vote when they can more easily decide the matter remotely? What better way to eliminate hyper-partisan debates than to keep members out of each others’ faces? Full story

December 1, 2014

Time to Strike a Fair Balance on Floor Amendments | Procedural Politics

The minority party in the House perennially complains it is treated unfairly when it comes to offering floor amendments. On some legislation it is not allowed to offer any amendments. That has been the case regardless of which party controls the House, and it’s gotten worse with each Congress dating back to the early 1990s.

The majority responds that governing such a large body is difficult but it tries to be both fair and efficient while advancing the majority’s legislative agenda. On bills of supreme importance to the majority, closed amendment rules are more and more common. On bills of lesser importance, structured rules are reported allowing only those amendments printed in the Rules Committee report. Completely open amendment rules are rare nowadays, confined mostly to appropriations bills. That can lead to a seemingly endless string of limitation amendments offered primarily by fiscal and policy conservatives.

So, what’s the real problem: too many amendments, too few, too much partisan gamesmanship, or too few actual policy debates over alternatives? The answer, as my wise grandfather would say (in the slightly different context of which kind of pie he wanted for dessert) is: “a little of each.”

I had occasion to re-examine this recently when I ran across an intriguing preliminary study by University of Miami political scientist (and friend), Gregory Koger (found here). His research, covering the 111th Congress through first session of this 113th Congress, reveals that minority party members actually offer more amendments on which roll call votes are taken than do majority party members. For the years 2009 through 2013, he found 1,038 House minority party amendments (including motions to recommit with instructions—the first in a two-step process to consider a final minority amendment) for 62.5 percent of total amendment roll calls. The majority party offered 622 such amendments or 37.5 percent of the total.

In a completely fair and open system those findings make sense because reported bills are majority party products, and the minority consequently has more reason to use the floor to offer all the amendments it lost in committee. But, since the minority complains that the majority increasingly restricts minority amendment rights, something could be amiss here.

I looked at this from a slightly different angle than Koger. I tallied all the amendments the House Rules Committee made in order to bills under special rules over the last three Congresses (2009-2014) without regard to whether they were subject to a roll call vote. My data shows the majority giving itself 1,204 amendments (45 percent), the minority 1,275 (48 percent), with 184 amendments (7 percent), bipartisan (see data here).

I have not factored-in either motions to recommit (which are not direct amendments) or amendments offered under open rules (which the majority does not control).

Interestingly, if you break this down by Congress, the Democratic-controlled 111th Congress allowed minority Republicans only 336 amendments (38 percent) while giving its own majority members 551 amendments (62 percent). Majority Republicans, on the other hand, in the 112th and 113th Congresses allowed 939 minority Democratic amendments (53 percent), their own GOP colleagues just 653 amendments (37 percent), and bipartisan amendment sponsors the remaining 10 percent.

Before you conclude that Republican majorities are more fair than Democratic majorities in allocating floor amendments, whoa back! There’s an anomaly cracker in my soup. In this 113th Congress, to date, majority Republicans have set an all-time record for the most closed amendment rules –67 which is 47 percent of all rules granted. That far surpasses the previous percentage high of 36 percent closed rules in both the Republican 112th and Democratic 110th Congresses.

It’s long past time for both parties to reverse this undemocratic trend of shutting-out free and (presumably) equal representatives from full participation in the legislative process. As the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Commission on Political Reform has recommended, the best way to ensure greater member involvement in a fair yet manageable floor process is through more modified open rules that require pre-printing of amendments in the Record and impose an overall time limit on their consideration.

Don Wolfensberger is a resident scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.

November 10, 2014

Lame-Duck Sessions Don’t Hatch Procedural Quackery | Procedural Politics

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid talks with Don Stewart, spokesman for presumed Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in the Capitol. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid talks with Don Stewart, spokesman for presumed Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in the Capitol. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Lame-duck sessions of Congress are those that occur after an election and before the new Congress. The lame ducks, of course, are those members who will not be returning in the next Congress due to retirement, defeat or running for other office. Oh, they still get paid and are still expected to vote (and most do). But, they have less incentive to show up regularly or vote the party line. That throws an element of uncertainty into lame-duck sessions and is why leaders would prefer to avoid them altogether. Nowadays, however, they are all but impossible to avoid given an appropriations process infected by an unchained malady looping in an unfinished symphony. 

Counting the current lame-duck session, there have only been 20 such sessions (out of 40 possible) since 1935 when the 20th amendment to the Constitution took effect.  That amendment changed the date for commencement of Congress to January 3, eliminating routine lame-duck “short sessions” between early December and early March.  Nine of the 20 lame ducks occurred in this and the preceding eight Congresses.  In all but three, Congress was forced to return after an election due in part to an “incomplete” on its appropriations report card. The three exceptions were 1998 for impeachment, 2008 for the economic meltdown, and 2012 for the fiscal cliff. This year Congress enacted none of its regular appropriations bills before the election recess, forcing government by continuing resolution through Dec. 11 and a lame-duck session beginning this week.

While presidents and an assortment of interest groups have long lists of items they would like a lame-duck session to consider, leaders prefer confining the agenda to “must pass” legislation: appropriations bills, and expiring tax and authorization laws. The exceptions are when an election takes control of Congress away from the president’s party as in 2006 and 2010.  That sets up a last-chance-for-legislative-romance dance between the branches. 

The lame-duck Congress in 2012 was also unusually productive given the action-forcing mechanism of the fiscal cliff. The current lame-duck round is unlikely to replicate its predecessor in legislative activity. That’s because of the lack of crisis, the president’s weakened status as a lame duck himself and Republicans’ better chances for success next Congress. 

No one is in an advantaged position this year to extract anything from a lame duck whose unsynchronized left and right wings have essentially grounded Congress for the better part of the past four years. Better to let it limp off stage with a minimal modicum of respect still intact.

That is not to say the leaders will have an easy time passing even a minimalist, must-pass agenda in the final days. While leaders might be expected under such time-sensitive conditions to pull out all the stops on procedural gimmicks and shortcuts and resort to what I call “procedural quackery” to get things done, quite the opposite has been true. An examination of the past eight Congresses reveals that most legislation considered during a lame-duck session is handled in a fairly straightforward manner. That’s because heavy-handed procedural gamesmanship late in the game can produce unnecessary partisan strife, delay and even defeat.   

Granted, there are no open amendment rules in the waning days of a session — continuing and omnibus appropriations and tax measures are traditionally closed, whether pre- or post-election. Members are more accepting of expedited procedures given the urgency of the agenda and the siren song of families beckoning them home for Thanksgiving and the religious holidays.

So, if you hear any duck calls emanating from Congress over the next month, don’t consider it a procedural quackery alert. More likely they are being sounded by the masters of the flock herding their fine feathered followers toward the exits until the last duck drops.

Don Wolfensberger is a resident scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.

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October 29, 2014

How Does Campaign Financing Affect Polarization? | Procedural Politics

Senate leaders Mitch McConnell and Harry Reid testify during a Senate Judiciary hearing on campaign finance. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Senate leaders Mitch McConnell and Harry Reid testify during a Senate Judiciary hearing on campaign finance. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

An interesting debate is swirling around next Tuesday’s midterm elections for Congress. It involves the extent to which the sources, amounts and uses of campaign contributions will affect not only the outcomes of various hotly contested races but the makeup, policy agenda and processes of the next Congress.

The 2010 midterms returned Republicans to power in the House after four years of Democratic rule. They also brought in a wave of hardline tea party conservatives who made any kind of cooperation between the House, Senate and White House nearly impossible. The re-election of President Barack Obama in 2012 did not alter that dynamic. If anything, it made governing even more problematic as the 2013 government shutdown amply demonstrated.

Two events this month helped highlight the nexus between campaign financing and polarization in Congress. The Bipartisan Policy Center convened a roundtable Oct. 16 that brought together scholars, political practitioners, good government groups and journalists to discuss whether the current state of campaign financing is responsible for the increasing level of polarization and gridlock in Congress. 

The Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs hosted the second event Oct. 20 in Austin, “Mastering Congress: Political Reform 50 Years After the Great Society.” The program featured two former Texas congressmen who serve on the BPC Commission on Political Reform, and two political scientists who are coauthors of an award-winning book on the increasing role members of Congress play in raising money for their party campaign committees and other candidates.

Dueling duos of academic election experts kicked-off the former roundtable. Tom Mann and Anthony Corrado, governance studies fellows at the Brookings Institution, take issue with those who assert that campaign finance law restrictions have weakened the parties and strengthened outside groups that tend to support more extreme candidates. They maintain that parties are as strong as ever but that the Republican Party “has veered sharply right in recent decades” producing an “asymmetric polarization” characterized by an unwillingness to compromise and a set of “unusually confrontational tactics.”

University of Massachusetts political scientists Ray LaRaja and Brian Schaffner say their research at the state level suggests Mann and Corrado “could be wrong.” Their study indicates that, “states with party-centered campaign finance laws tend to be less polarized than states that constrain how the parties can support candidates.” This is because party organizations tend to fund more moderate, pragmatic candidates. Both sides of the debate concur that recent campaign financing developments are not the overriding cause of increased polarization but have certainly exacerbated it.

Eric Heberlig of the University of North Carolina and Bruce Larson of Gettysburg College, co-authors of “Congressional Parties, Institutional Ambition, and the Financing of Majority Control,” told the Austin conference about the explosive, coordinated growth since 1990 in campaign giving by members of Congress to their party committees and other candidates. Today, party leaders importune their members to give generously to their party campaign committees. The leadership establishes quotas for overall giving to the party depending on a member’s position in the leadership or on committees.

Consequently, members spend less time on their legislative work in Congress and more time raising campaign funds for their own re-election and their party. Former Reps. Henry Bonilla, R-Texas, and Charlie Gonzalez, D-Texas, agreed that members now spend at least one-fourth of their time attending fundraisers and dialing for dollars. Committees consequently are less involved in serious policymaking as party leaders increasingly shape the legislative agenda to satisfy party campaign contributors.  The former congressmen say this shift was especially noticeable beginning in 2006 (Bonilla) or 2010 (Gonzalez).

The increasing role of Super PACs and wealthy, independent donors in recent election cycles poses more unanswered questions about the impact of campaign giving on the agenda and processes of Congress. If there is some correlation between the growth and sources of campaign spending, on the one hand, and legislative outcomes in Congress, then record-breaking campaign spending this cycle could either make the 114th Congress even more gridlocked than its predecessor or more unified and productive around a few select issues — all depending on which party wins the Senate.

Don Wolfensberger is a resident scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.

October 14, 2014

Members’ Day Proposals Reflect Varied Concerns | Procedural Politics

Steve Scalise

Scalise testified in favor of re-establishing regular accounts for what are now called Congressional Member Organizations like the RSC. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

My previous column left some readers in a state of suspended agitation because I praised the revival of the Members’ Day congressional reform hearing in the Rules Committee (after a 12 year hiatus), but failed to discuss any of the specific proposals recommended. Hopefully this account will douse the ire, though it doesn’t begin to cover all the proposals submitted by the 28 members who offered testimony.   Full story

October 6, 2014

Members’ Day Revives Bipartisan Reform Fest | Procedural Politics

The House Rules Committee recently resurrected a custom first established in 1996 by then-Chairman Jerry Solomon, R-N.Y., inviting members of both parties to testify toward the end of the second session on rules changes they would like to see adopted in the next Congress.  Solomon called the hearing “Members’ Day” to connote the open-ended opportunity for any member to suggest improvements in House operations. 

The hearings produced an array of proposed rules changes ranging from the ridiculous to the sublime.  It also helped affirm that some members still cared about the health and well-being of the institution — a concern that has been dwindling in recent years.  It’s much easier to bash Congress from the inside than to praise or defend it, especially given the foul mood of voters today toward government.

This year, the Rules Subcommittee on Rules and Organization of the House, chaired by Rep. Rich Nugent, R-Fla., hosted the reform fest.Nugent indicated it was the first time since 2002 the hearing had been held.  It was so long ago that ranking subcommittee Democrat Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, first elected in 1996, said he had completely forgotten it had ever happened.  

Nugent also made  clear twice during the hearing that it would not be taking place if it did not have the full blessing and clearance from the Republican leadership — a reminder that Rules is a leadership committee and makes no moves independently, especially as they relate to the operations of the House. 

During the two-hour session on Sept. 17, the subcommittee heard from 15 witnesses (eight Republicans and seven Democrats), who found themselves agreeing more with each other and their Rules Committee interrogators, than disagreeing. Eleven other members submitted statements for the record. 

The hearing was different from the highly charged partisan exchanges that usually take place in the committee’s small hearing room on the third floor of the Capitol.  McGovern didn’t grasp that at first and read a prepared opening statement blasting Republicans for their procedural unfairness and record-breaking number of closed (no-amendment) rules.  When it became apparent this would not be the usual bare-knuckled committee brawl, he spent the rest of the hearing praising the chairman and witnesses from both parties on their thoughtful contributions.

Following the session, first-term Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions, R-Texas, issued a statement saying the purpose of the hearing was to provide a forum for members of both parties to offer ideas on “how we can build on the positive reforms we have put in place over the last several years.”  Sessions said his goal as chairman “is for members to play an active role in shaping the rules package for the next Congress,” and that the hearing “was an important first step in that process.” 

If it were any other committee, such kudos and commitments might be taken as perfunctory nice-speak, signifying little.  Hearings are, after all, one way chairmen give their colleagues something to take credit for without having to give away the legislative store.  But the Rules Committee is a horse of a different color, not prone to making symbolic gestures, let alone to dispensing party favors across-the-aisle. 

Having worked closely with the committee over nearly three decades, including serving as Solomon’s chief-of-staff when the members’ day custom began, I sensed this was a genuine first step being taken by Boehner, through Sessions, after a 12-year hiatus, to signal a more inclusive and collegial tone and direction for the next Congress.  I could be wrong. It wouldn’t the first time my optimism has outraced reality.  But I also sense that House members, reflecting public demands to end gridlock, are ready for change and that this may be the real deal.

Don Wolfensberger is a resident scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.

September 29, 2014

Ding-Dong Bell, Let’s Go Poison the Well | Procedural Politics

(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Republicans and Democrats called on Gingrich to move one-minute speeches in 1996 amid increasing partisan acrimony. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Every year I take a group of Wilson Center fellows to Capitol Hill where we observe an hour of House proceedings from the gallery.  Some of the fellows, especially those from other countries, are both fascinated and perplexed by the opening ceremonies — the prayer, the pledge, the welcoming of a guest chaplain, followed by a series of one-minute speeches by members on anything they want to talk about.  

I tell the fellows this opening round of mini-speeches has been dubbed by someone, “the one-minute happy hour” because it is such an eclectic slice of Americana, from praising the hometown football team on winning the state championship, to commending a 100-year-old couple from the district on their 80th wedding anniversary, to blasting the opposition party. 

In the latter case, I inform the group that priority seating in the front row of the chamber goes to two groups of ringers on either side of the aisle dividing the parties. They lead off with their scripted, political messages, with recognition alternating between the parties. The Republicans call their speakers “The Theme Team,” and Democrats call theirs “The Message Group.”  The remarks are usually a mix of the positive and negative, from touting the party’s programs and accomplishments to criticizing the opposition party’s irresponsible policies.

To a visitor in the gallery it might appear that the bells convening the day’s session have triggered a partisan Pavlovian response.  In 1996, one-minutes got so nasty that a bipartisan group of 50 members wrote to then-Speaker Newt Gingrich, urging him to move one-minutes to the end of the day because the partisan punch lines were poisoning the well of the House before the day’s legislative business even began.  It reminded me of the nursery rhyme, “Pussy’s in the Well,” but with a twist: “Ding-dong bell, let’s go poison the well.” Full story

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