Yesterday, amid little fanfare, House Democrats announced a series of procedural changes in the House Rules, which will be voted on during today's session. Most of the changes are pretty boilerplate: More restrictions for retiring members of congress trying to negotiate lucrative private sector jobs while still in office, an end to term limits for committee chairs -- ostensibly to end the fundraising gamesmanship around succession but with the added twist of reinforcing seniority -- more earmark reform, and a medicare cost control provision.

To my mind the most interesting adjustment is a modification of the motion to recommit, one of the few ways that the minority party in the House can kill a piece of legislation. A motion to recommit sends the bill back to its originating committee with instructions to amend it; this in effect ends consideration of the legislation. The change that has been made, like all fun legal changes, revolves around a single word: In the past, the minority party could recommit the bill "promptly," which returned it to committee. Now they will be unable to do that, instead recommitting the bill "forthwith," which forces an immediate floor vote (after a short debate) on whatever amendment the minority would like to have attached to the bill, preventing the parliamentary maneuver from holding up the final legislation for long.

Now that's a lot of Robert's Rules mumbo-jumbo, what's the real world effect? The procedure has been used to kill bills on issues like D.C. voting rights, public housing improvements, and various appropriations and authorization bills that included provisions opposed by Republicans. Congressional expert Norm Ornstein has said that "using ‘promptly’…is a subterfuge, a way to kill bills, and reflects a desire not to legislate but embarrass vulnerable majority Members through a ‘gotcha’ process." And Republicans have conceded that these motions are intended to kill bills, as former Representative Tom Davis did while discussing a "promptly" motion during the debate over the D.C. gun ban legislation:

"I think the gun ban in the District is ridiculous, and I would join with my colleagues in overturning it. The problem is this motion doesn't do that. Instead of bringing this motion back to the floor forthwith for a vote up or down to continue this resolution and send it to the Senate with the gun ban, it sends it back to the committee… So essentially this vote doesn't go anywhere. You can get your vote on gun rights, but it kills the bill, and that is the intention of this."

The motion to recommit has been around for a while, but like the filibuster, it has seen increasing use in the last decade or so -- Newt Gingrich deployed it with great effect while in the minority during the early nineties. If the rules change eases legislative obstruction and is politically uncontroversial, one wonders if the burgeoning support for removing the filibuster from the Senate, or amending filibuster rules to make it harder to enact, will grow large enough to see action from Democratic Leadership. The change is also a sign of the confidence of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and her team, reflecting her desire to put a real stamp on the institution and her own legacy.

-- Tim Fernholz

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