A new era for the People’s House

Rob Bluey Contributor
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Four years after Speaker Nancy Pelosi promised the “most honest, most open and most ethical Congress in history,” her Republican successors appear intent on finally fulfilling that pledge.

Speaker-elect John Boehner (R-Ohio) unveiled a new rules package Wednesday for the House of Representatives. When the 112th Congress convenes in January, the rules will usher in a new era on Capitol Hill.

The rules replace Pelosi’s top-down, iron-fisted approach with a more transparent and committee-led system for crafting and debating legislation. In conjunction with a revised congressional calendar proposed by Majority Leader-elect Eric Cantor (R-Va.), they show Republicans are listening to Americans frustrated with Washington’s ways of doing business.

Many of the new rules stem from the GOP’s Pledge to America. One of the most significant changes — and a favorite of Tea Party activists — will require members of Congress who introduce legislation to cite the powers in the Constitution to enact it. To emphasize the importance of the U.S. Constitution, Boehner will have it read aloud on Jan. 6.

Republicans will also implement the so-called 72-hour rule. Transparency advocates such as the Sunlight Foundation have sought the requirement to end the practice of rushing legislation to the House floor with little or no time to actually read it. Beginning in January, legislation will be available online for at least three calendar days.

And for the first time, the House of Representatives will make “electronic format” the standard for accessing bill text. It’s a common-sense solution that’s long overdue.

“These reforms represent Republicans’ first step in keeping the promises we outlined in the Pledge to America to change the way Washington works and address the people’s priorities: creating jobs and cutting spending,” Boehner said.

On Boehner’s latter point, the rules tackle budget reform by replacing the Democrats’ flawed pay-as-you-go (PAYGO) rule with a new cut-as-you-go provision. It requires spending cuts — and prohibits tax hikes — whenever mandatory spending is increased.

Republicans will also repeal the “Gephardt Rule,” which increased the debt limit when a new budget resolution was adopted. Members of Congress will now be held accountable — with a roll call vote — for a debt limit increase.

While the rules will significantly improve openness and transparency, they also shift more responsibility to committees — an important goal for Boehner, a former committee chairman.

Committees face a new set of requirements to ensure they’re working on legislation and conducting oversight. They include posting more information online within specific time requirements. For example, all committee rules must now be made available online, member attendance for each hearing and markup must be posted within 24 hours, and committee votes must be online 48 hours after a markup.

These changes, along with webcasting hearings and posting amendments and testimony online, will make it easier for Americans not physically present on Capitol Hill to keep tabs on committee work.

Committees will also be required to file activity reports twice a year; currently they’re only required to do so once per Congress. This should ensure that committees are carrying out their oversight duties — something that has dwindled under Pelosi’s tenure.

The new rules reinstate a six-year term limit on committee chairmen — a signature piece of the 1994 Contract with America that House Democrats undid in 2007.

These changes are a welcome shift for the House of Representatives — some made possible by technology and others by a desire of the American people to clean up Congress. But it will take more to fix Washington than a new set of rules — as Pelosi learned four years after making her bold promise.

Republicans would be wise to keep innovating, making transparency a centerpiece of their agenda. Only then will the American people fully benefit from an honest, open and ethical Congress.

Rob Bluey directs the Center for Media and Public Policy at The Heritage Foundation.