The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Democrats would slow down floor votes, require committee action under proposed House rules

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) speaks to the news media on Capitol Hill on Nov. 15. (Erik S Lesser/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

House Democrats are proposing to make substantial changes to the chamber’s rules as they prepare to take the majority, according to a list of changes endorsed by top party leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and presented to lawmakers Thursday.

Among other things, the proposed reforms would potentially slow down the process for bringing legislation to a floor vote, make it easier to call up a bill that has bipartisan support but is opposed by the majority party’s leadership, and give committees a stronger role in drafting legislation.

The list of proposals obtained by The Washington Post is not considered to be final and could be substantially modified before the rules are adopted in January, but the changes floated Thursday have the backing of Pelosi and incoming Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern (D-Mass.). Taken together, the proposals seek to address Democrats' concerns about the way the outgoing Republican majority ran the chamber but also bipartisan complaints about more-persistent weaknesses in House operations.

They also come as Pelosi is stumping for support to be House speaker again, and among the proposals are changes that have been demanded by some members in return for their speaker votes.

The proposed rule changes require more time for the review of legislation before a floor vote, changing the standard from three days — which often means a little more than 24 hours — to a full 72 hours. They would require every bill sent to the floor by the Rules Committee to get a committee hearing and markup before getting a floor vote. They would create a supermajority requirement to raise individual income taxes on the lowest-earning four-fifths of taxpayers. And they would require each legislative committee to hold “Member Days” to solicit legislative ideas from lawmakers who don’t serve on those committees.

Another proposal would reform the “discharge petition” process to make it simpler to call up bipartisan bills for a vote. Under current rules, there are only certain legislative days where those bills — which have garnered majority support in Congress but have not been brought to the floor — can be considered. The proposed change would allow a discharged bill to be called up within three days, regardless of the calendar.

Democrats are also looking to pursue a “more thoughtful process” surrounding the process for removing a sitting House speaker. That has emerged as a closely watched issue since 2015, when conservative hard-liners used the “motion to vacate the chair” as a cudgel that ultimately forced out Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio). Many rank-and-file lawmakers since then have pushed to eliminate the ability of any one member — or even a small group — to call a vote on ousting a speaker.

Those proposals address some, but not all, of a series of rule changes supported by the Problem Solvers Caucus — a bipartisan group of centrist lawmakers that has threatened to withhold their speaker votes unless certain changes are made. In a letter to the group’s members Thursday, Pelosi agreed in principle that the chamber’s rules must be improved, without specifically committing to the entire range of their proposals.

“Transparency, openness and bipartisanship must be the guiding rules of our new Democratic House if we are to break the gridlock of Washington and make progress in the lives of hard-working Americans,” she wrote.

Other proposed changes would seek to increase transparency and accountability. The proposed rule would make clear that a nondisclosure agreement could not keep a staff member from speaking to the authorities on Capitol Hill. Another would require the Ethics Committee to open an investigation within 30 days if a member is charged with a crime. Another — banning members and staff from serving on corporate boards — has already garnered bipartisan support.

A proposal from Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.), the incoming Budget Committee chairman, would serve to defuse potential legislative cliffhangers over the federal debt ceiling by reinstating the “Gephardt rule” — a provision in place from 1980 to 2010 that deemed the debt ceiling raised when Congress adopted a budget.

Three proposals explicitly backed by Pelosi would seek to “restore inclusion and diversity,” ranging from a rule making clear that religious headwear is permitted in the House chamber, to the establishment of a new diversity office to assist in minority hiring, to writing an explicit ban on gender-identity and LGBT discrimination into the House rules.

The proposals also include undoing several rule changes put forward by Republicans when they were in the majority, including eliminating the “Holman rule,” a provision allowing Congress to target individual employees' salaries in spending bills; renaming the Committee on Education and the Workforce to the “Committee on Education and Labor”; and again allowing delegates and the resident commissioner of Puerto Rico to participate in some floor votes. Another proposed reversal would be to eliminate the Congressional Budget Office’s use of “dynamic scoring,” the practice of taking economic growth estimates into account when projecting the fiscal effect of legislation.

And in a catchall proposal that could lead to further reforms, several Democrats are proposing a select committee to improve the operation of Congress, one that would include members of both parties empowered to make further recommendations.