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If you caught the opening session of the 111th Congress yesterday, you saw the House work through its ritual biennial reconstitution, including the adoption of a new set of standing rules. Because every Member of the House is reelected every two years, the House is entirely "new" each time, so they have to adopt "new" rules each time the start over.

In practice, that means pretty much re-adopting the rules they had last time, along with whatever changes they want to make looking forward. And there were a few interesting changes this time around.

Here's the package itself, contained in H. Res. 5 (PDF), if you'd like to see what such a resolution actually looks like.

What's in it? Ask Steny. He'll tell you, also in PDF form.

Rules changes this year will further strengthen the integrity of the institution.  Commonsense reforms incorporated into the House Rules Package include:

• Closing the loophole that allowed ‘lame duck’ Members to negotiate employment contracts in secret to ensure full transparency in future negotiations.

• Removing reference to term limits for Committee Chairs from this package to remove political considerations from the official Rules of the House. Term limits were originally incorporated into the House rules by Republicans in 1995, and as a result, elevated fundraising as a prerequisite for election to Chair.

• Making commonsense changes to the motion to recommit that preserve the Minority’s legitimate right to present policy alternatives while denying them the abusive practice of subverting the work of Congress by working to kill key measures that have broad, bipartisan support from the American people by raising unrelated amendments for the sole purpose of scoring political points.  

• Codifying additional budget earmark reforms adopted mid-term in the 110th Congress resulting in even further transparency and accountability in the earmark process.

• Maintaining strong PAYGO rules that will help restore fiscal discipline.

I'm particularly pleased to see the changes being made to the motion to recommit, which has been irksome to me (and, it turns out, to some people who actually count) for some time now.

A quick primer: a motion to recommit a bill to committee with instructions to report back a proposed amendment "forthwith" means the bill stays on the floor and is amended immediately, whereas instructions to report back "promptly" actually sends the bill off the floor and back to committee, where it usually dies.

The MTR with instructions to report back "promptly" is a stupid option to even have on the books. If you want the chance to change legislation, then vote to change it. If you want the chance to kill it, then wait five minutes and vote against the bill.

The need to change this rule may be our own fault for allowing Democrats to break ranks on motions to recommit, but there was never any real utility to the "promptly" instruction except as a way to kill a bill while looking like you're not killing it. How was the public ever to guess that "promptly" really meant "never?" The "promptly" instruction is a bullshit trick, and it deserves to die.

Hoyer provides some interesting numbers on the "promptly" instruction. Republicans offered 50 such motions in the 110th Congress. Democrats offered just 36 during the entire 12-year Republican majority from 1995-2007. (Most, I would bet, were in the 109th Congress, when the Dems, then in the minority, hatched the strategy of frequent use the motion to recommit to set up election issues. Unsurprisingly, it turned out that the tactic can also be used by other people when they're in the minority.)

Another number: Dems actually voted to pass 25 "forthwith" motions in the 110th Congress, which is held out to demonstrate that they were willing to work with Republicans on "fine-tuning" legislation with this procedure. Of course, we learned recently that that's about the total number of motions to recommit that were adopted. That prior article lists the number of motions adopted at 24. I don't know where the 25th came from, but if the whole number of motions adopted was in the neighborhood of 24 or 25, and Hoyer's fact sheet says 25 "forthwith" motions were adopted, then maybe the "promptly" motions weren't a tremendous problem after all. Still, I don't really even like "forthwith" motions, because I don't like the idea of amending legislation in 10 minutes when you often haven't even seen the text until the moment it's offered. But hey, that's just me.

Anyway, here's yet another Hoyer fact sheet, this one (PDF) just on the MTR issue, if you're interested. And why wouldn't you be? Especially when becoming familiar with the motion to recommit opens up a whole new world of geek humor, which you could have enjoyed yesterday if you watched the proceedings and saw Republicans offer a motion to recommit the Rules package with instructions to remove the change in the rules on motions to recommit.

At least they had the courtesy to offer the MTR with instructions to report the changes back "forthwith." Frankly, I'm surprised they didn't take their last opportunity to offer a "promptly" instruction, if just for old times' sake.

But there were other goodies buried in the Rules package, too. Check these out!

Built right into the vehicle of the Rules package, the House authorized the Judiciary Committee to continue its lawsuit seeking to enforce its subpoenas and contempt of Congress citations against Bush White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten and former White House counsel Harriet Miers.

Technically, Miers and Bolten were in contempt of the 110th Congress. But with its adjournment, the 110th Congress no longer exists, so there's nothing to be in contempt of, nor any plaintiff in the lawsuit. The courts had indicated that this might give them cause to moot the whole case and drop it. But the Rules package specifically authorizes the Judiciary Committee in the new 111th Congress to continue the suit. And we had earlier word that the 111th was considering reissuing those subpoenas.

From Hoyer's fact sheet (PDF):

Continuing Authority Over Executive Branch Lawsuit –

• Congress has the responsibility and constitutional right to oversee the Executive Branch.  The lawsuit was filed in order to preserve and enforce the House’s constitutional responsibility and right to oversee the Executive Branch; it also was filed to preserve the Executive Branch’s responsibility to comply with congressional subpoenas and to restore the institutional integrity of Congress.  This provision authorizes the Committee on the Judiciary and the House General Counsel to continue the lawsuit derived from the House holding White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten and former White House Counsel Harriet Miers in contempt of Congress for failure to comply with congressional subpoenas.  Because the subpoenas expire at the end of the 110th Congress, the resolution is needed so that the Judiciary Committee can continue to appear in court in the 111th Congress.  

• With respect to the continued investigation into the firing of certain United States Attorneys, this provision authorizes the chairman of the Judiciary Committee to issue subpoenas and the taking of depositions by Members or counsel, which will be governed by rules printed in the Congressional Record by the Rules Committee chair or otherwise prescribed by the Judiciary Committee.  In addition, it authorizes the Judiciary Committee and General Counsel to add as a party to the lawsuit any individual subpoenaed by the Committee in the 110th Congress who failed to comply.

• The House has already won the contempt of Congress case at the trial level; a Federal judge ordered Mr. Bolten and Ms. Miers to comply with valid congressional subpoenas – this resolution allows for the continuance of that lawsuit during the appeal.

But that's not all.

Take a good look at this part again:

In addition, it authorizes the Judiciary Committee and General Counsel to add as a party to the lawsuit any individual subpoenaed by the Committee in the 110th Congress who failed to comply.

Who else was subpoenaed by the Judiciary Committee in the 110th Congress and failed to comply?

Karl Rove.

And Michael Mukasey.

Nice going, Chairman Conyers and Speaker Pelosi.

In the face of what was likely some stiff resistance and a desire to "turn the page" with a new administration, etc., Conyers and Pelosi appear determined to get an answer from the courts once and for all on whether the Congress is to have a serious subpoena power with respect to the executive branch or not. Good for them. And good for us. And good for Rules Committee Chair Louise Slaughter (D-NY-28) for agreeing to include these measures.

Originally posted to Daily Kos on Wed Jan 07, 2009 at 07:25 AM PST.

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