Key to New House Is Often Lost in Opening Day Hoopla
There is nothing more exciting and colorful than the swirl of sights and sounds in the House chamber on opening day of a new Congress. The floor is teeming with Members and their kids; the public galleries are jammed with proud families and constituents; and the media galleries are stacked with out-of-town press, extra klieg lights and cameras. The atmosphere is electric with the buzzing, humming and throbbing of Members moshing in the well with handshakes, hellos and hugs; children bubbling on, over and under seat rows; and blown kisses, waves, thumbs-up and shouts being traded rapid-fire between the floor and galleries.
Today's opening day of the 110th Congress should be downright timpanious (OK, I coined the word: think three-kettle-drum timpani). Not only will a large class of more than 50 freshman Members be sworn in, but control of the chamber will switch parties for the first time in a dozen years and the first woman Speaker ever will take over the third-highest office in the land. Boom-boom-boom!
For those new to this biennial pageant of democracy, here's the rough order of business. The Clerk of the House from the previous Congress gavels the House into session at noon. The Chaplain delivers the prayer. Members and guests join in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. There is a call of the House by electronic device to determine the presence of a quorum. Each party then nominates a candidate for Speaker — expected to be Rep. John Boehner of Ohio by the Republicans, and Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California by the Democrats. The roll of Members is called verbally by the reading clerk in alphabetical order, and Members respond to their names with either "Boehner" or "Pelosi" (with an occasional wild card thrown in).
The losing candidate makes a brief concession speech and hands the gavel to the winner, who then takes the oath of office from the Dean of the House, Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.). The new Speaker then delivers an acceptance speech promising to preside over the House with fairness and impartiality, and to preside over the majority's legislative agenda as party leader with vision and vigor.
The Speaker then asks all elected Members to rise, raise their right hands and take the oath of office. "Congratulations," concludes the Speaker. "You are now Members of the 110th United States Congress." The floor and galleries erupt in sustained cheers and applause. The extra TV lights are then doused, the chamber dims, and the floor and galleries slowly drain. There are swearing-in photos to be taken with the Speaker and parties to attend back in Members' offices.
On the floor, however, opening day business continues. House officers are elected (Clerk, Sergeant-at-Arms, Chief Administrative Officer and Chaplain), with the minority party offering its ill-fated alternative slate of candidates. Resolutions are adopted notifying the president and Senate of these organizational decisions.
Finally, with the chamber now practically empty, the Majority Leader (or the presumptive chairman of the Rules Committee) calls up a resolution from the party caucus to adopt House rules for the new Congress. The resolution reads simply that the rules of the previous Congress are adopted as the rules of the new Congress with certain specified amendments recommended by the majority party caucus. The resolution usually is considered for just one hour, half of which is yielded to the minority party as a courtesy.
Ordinarily there is no opportunity for separate amendments to be offered from the floor (though this year Democrats reportedly will copy the Republicans' 1995 format of permitting separate debate and votes on their major rules changes). The minority party is left with just two shots: to defeat the previous question, which, if successful, would give them an additional hour of debate and the right to offer their own amendments; and a nondebatable motion to commit the resolution to a select committee with instructions to report back certain amendments immediately. Not surprisingly, both minority efforts fail along party lines, and the majority package is then adopted.
It seems ironic that one of the most important decisions of a Congress — the adoption of rules that will guide House committee and floor deliberations over the next two years — is debated so briefly, in relative darkness, by just a handful of Members. It would be one thing if the resolution simply readopted the rules of the previous Congress. But there often are important new rules added to enhance the majority's ability to process its legislation or counter potential minority obstruction. Moreover, important alternative rules usually are proposed by the minority party to delete some of the majority's proposals and add new rules giving the minority a more level playing field.
The details of these dueling rules packages and the tone in which they are debated can tell us a great deal about the future direction of the new Congress and how well the parties will be able to work together. In the 103rd Congress the Republican minority vigorously protested a rule change giving the Delegates from Washington, D.C., Guam, the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and American Samoa floor voting rights in the Committee of the Whole (a rule later challenged and sustained in federal court). Moreover, the GOP offered a host of alternative rules that foreshadowed the House reforms promised in the "Contract with America" two years later.
When the new Republican majority took over in 1995 and put forward its reforms for the House, minority Democrats countered with ethics rules changes aimed at highlighting an extravagant book advance that the new Speaker had to turn back out of embarrassment, foreshadowing the Democrats' pursuit of then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) on ethics charges. In the 109th Congress, minority Democrats focused on Republicans' attempts to revise House ethics rules to protect their Majority Leader (later rescinded), leading to his eventual resignation.
Reading competing, opening day party rules packages may not be the same as reading tea leaves, but it can offer a tea kettle's early warning whistle over future boiling points in a Congress.
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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