The Heritage Foundation

Executive Memorandum #11

January 3, 1983

January 3, 1983 | Executive Memorandum on

New Gag Rules for the House

(Archived document, may contain errors)


Although the legislative business of Congress will not begin until late January, House members convene today to consider new rules of procedure that-would havp a profound effect on th@ next Congress. If the rule changes propos ed by the Democratic Caucu.@. are passed by the full House, power will be further concentrated in.the hands of the House leadership, making it even more difficult than it-is now for members to force debate on issues opposed by the Speaker. The rule change s would weaken the power of both liberal and conservative members out of step with the leadership. Among the proposed rule changes, three ar e particularly threatening to free debate. The first would prevent riders o 'n appropriations bills, unless a major i ty of the House voted to open an otherwise completed bill for such amendments. The second would require two-thirds of the members to sign a discharge petition before the Judiciary' Committee would be forced to allow a floor vote on a bottled-up constituti o nal amendment; the current requirement is half the membership. The third proposal would change the quorum rule, allowing the Speaker to ignore calls for a quorum unless a vote is about to take place. Supporters of the rule changes argue that they are nece s sary to improve the efficiency and orderliness of busines 's. "The fact is, the House is not working well," says Democratic Caucus Chairman Gillis Long of Louisiana. The fact is also that the change will, as Representative Long admits, strengthen the powe r of the the expense of ordinary members. The restriction on appropriation riders would widen existing differ- ences between the House and the Senate. In the latter chamber, extensive use is made of the rider. It has been used to move key items o f legisla- tion past obstructive committees. Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson, for instance, used the device in 1960 to unlock his seminal civil rights bill. The proposed rule changes would also make,it extremely difficult for a majority of members t o place tight constraints on the uses of appropriations. Both liberals and conservatives:have used riders to introduce key restrictions on appropriations. IA the early 1970s', for instance, liberal Democrats used the device in an effort to limit America's m ilitary activities in Vietnam. Most recently, conservatives have used riders to restrict the federal funding of abortions and busing. The advent of omnibus appropriation bills and budget'resolutions makes it even more important for members to have the rig ht to use riders in their oversight capacity. As Representative John Breaux (D-LA) complains, the rule change would be nothing short of a "gag rule."


T he move to increase the number of signatu 'res needed for a discharge petition is a reflection of emb arrassment sustained by the leadership over the Balanced Budget Amendment. The change would make it much more difficult for the House to debate a constitutional amendment opposed by the leadership. But without this "safety valve,a very democratic proce- d u re," as civil rights champion Don Edwards (D-CA) terms it, voter pressure for populist constitutional conventions is likely to grow. As such, it is far more likely that the Constitution will be "tampered with," which proponents of the rule change wish to avoid, than under the existing petition rules.

The quorum rule change seems little more than an attempt to thwart the intent of the Constitution. Article I, Section 5 requires Congress to have quorum present when conducting business., The attempt to interp ret "business" solely as voting makes a mockery of debate. More importantly, it would extend the practice*,of "phantom legislating," whereby the Speaker allows work to continue on measures he approves of during meetings: of the House that do not have enou gh members for a quorum, and then blocks later business he opposes.

The effect of these rule changes would not be to defend orderly House business from the tactics of a mischievous minority, as some proponents have argued, but to enable the House leadership to withstand the majority desires of the chamber. majorities'supp o rting riders and discharge petitions could be blocked, and the new quorum rule would enable a small minority, with the acquiescence of the Speaker, to steam- roller legislation. While the rules of Congress"may well need reform, these three changes would b e a retrograde step, stripping the majority of members of key powers to control and initiate 'legislation. These proposed changes should alarm all those--liberalp, conservatives, cen- trists--who are determined to protect the integrity of the federal legis lative process.

Stuart Butler, Ph.D. Director Domestic Policy Studies

For further information: Steven Roberts, "Altering the Way the House Operates," The,New York Times, December 13, 1982. "Democrats Set Stage for House Rules Battle," Congressiona@ Quarterly, December 11, 1982.


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