One of the first orders of business when the 98th Congress opens today will be the adoption of the rules of the House of Representatives. The rules deal with how the House will manage its internal affairs and the procedures under which legislation will or won't be considered.
Over the years, rules changes have been noted for (1) their lack of reform of the legislative processes, and (2) their restrictions on free debate and the ability of members, especially a minority of members, to influence the legislative process.
However, the rules that have been proposed by the House Democratic Caucus, better named "King Caucus," for the 98th Congress make those past rules look like a model of democracy in action.
What King Caucus should have done and failed to do is address the real problems of overlapping committee jurisdictions; too many subcommittees and too much staff; inadequate budget and spending timetables and procedures; and ineffective oversight of existing laws and their intended purposes.
Instead of addressing the real problems of the House, King Caucus proposed changes that constitute "avoidance behavior" aimed at allowing members to avoid being held accountable for being present and voting on many difficult issues.
Basically, the rules proposals make three major changes.
First, they will require a two-thirds vote on petitions to discharge constittutional amendments from committee, instead of the simple majority now required.
Those familiar with the House know full well that this rule will effectively bar floor debate on a aonstitutional amendment unless a select few powerful leaders give their blessing. It seems so outrageous that a majority of the members of the House, acting on the principle of majority rule, cannot even force a debate on a subject of national public interest.
It cannot be said that the new discharge rule is being proposed because the 70-year- old discharge procedure has been abused. Only three constitutional amendments have ever been brought to the floor under that procedure, and the first, the Equal Rights Amendment, wasn't discharged until 1970.
The second change is a prohibition on so- called "riders" on appropriations bills, those amendments introduced on the floor to limit or restrict use of funds appropriated by Congress. Again, the rider has been applied as one of the fundamental tools of majority rule. It is one of the few tools available to the membership enabling it to address questions of oversight and legislative intent, particularly when the committees fail to act.
Riders have been used effectively by conservatives and liberals alike to, among other things, restrict funding for combat operations in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War, cancel the B1 bomber, restrict the use of federal funds for abortion, cancel public works projects and even to prohibit sex-drug studies at an Illinois University (one use I made of the rider). They were used effectively during the 1960s to focus on segregated public facilities and the need to legislate basic civil rights for all Americans.
The third area of concern involves changes to prevent votes on the journal and on resolving into committee of the whole.
The Constitution in Article I, Section 5, requires that "a majority of each House shall constitute a quorum to do business." What this means under these new rules is that the only business of the House is voting, not debating, not listening, not seeing, not hearing what transpires before a vote. The changes prevent anyone from ensuring a quorum is present on the floor, except for voting, and they actually discourage members from attending floor debate. It will be all but impossible to prevent consideration of legislation slipped onto the floor without adequate notice. More democracy in action.
The minority, by itself, cannot prevent this power squeeze, and given the pressure on the majority not to break ranks, these rules changes may very well be enacted without the attention and debate they so badly need.
The rules changes take us beyond the traditional partisan, political battles. They strike at the heart of our legislative process and the public's access to it through their elected representatives.
It is somehow ironic that at the end of the 98th Congress, as Election Day approaches, the people will be asking their representatives how they voted on this issue or that and many times will be told that the issue was never voted on. The people should understand that, on the opening day of the 98th Congress, their representative had the opportunity to vote to allow more issues to be presented to the full House, but instead may have voted to prevent many questions from ever being considered. It is obvious that the proposed rules changes are nothing more than an exercise in "issue ducking."