House Continues to Keep “Open Rules” Pledge Under Speaker Boehner

John Boehner

The FY 2014 appropriations bills being considered on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives this week are being brought up under “open rules” that allow any sitting Member of Congress to propose and receive a vote on changes to those bills.  The open rules, which make it easier for Members to improve bills and eliminate unnecessary government spending, are the latest manifestation of a pledge made and kept under Speaker Boehner, who two years ago promised the new Republican majority would run the institution differently than its Democratic predecessor.

One congressional expert calls open rules “essential for fair consideration of legislation on the House floor.”  Proponents of spending control and smaller government consider them an invaluable tool for fighting government waste.

Despite loud promises of openness by its leaders, there were zero open rules allowed during the 111th Congress, the last Congress under Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California. This iron-fisted approach coincided with an explosion in new government spending, including the approval of thousands of taxpayer-funded pork-barrel earmarks riding on appropriations bills.

By contrast, in the 112th Congress under Speaker Boehner, there were no fewer than 14 open rules utilized, and a total of 25 rules were adopted that were either open or “modified-open” (meaning any member can offer an amendment as long as it is preprinted in the Congressional Record ahead of time), based on an analysis by House Rules Committee staff. 

With the approval this week of rules for the first two appropriations bills to be considered, the House under Boehner is continuing this more open approach in the 113th Congress, with two open rules and one modified-open rule having already been reported. 

On January 5, 2011, the day he accepted the gavel as the new speaker, Boehner pledged things would be different.  “Openness – once a tradition of this institution, but increasingly scarce in recent decades, will be the new standard,” Boehner declared.  “There were no open rules in the House in the last Congress.  In this one, there will be many.”

Under Boehner’s leadership, the GOP majority in the House has kept its pledge.  And while little noted in the media, it’s a notable shift in how the House is being run, with real policy implications for the American people.

“Under the tutelage of Nancy Pelosi, the former speaker, Democrats shied away from the process” of open rules, noted the New York Times in 2011.  By contrast, the Times noted, “Republicans have embraced the open rule practice because it is in keeping with the traditions of the House, and because many amendments offered by their members call for cuts in spending, which they want to spotlight.” 

The Democratic majority in the House went through the entire 111th Congress without considering a single bill under an open rule.  Some Members of Congress who were elected in 2008 and later defeated spent their entire congressional careers without ever legislating under an open rule.

The use of open rules by the GOP majority is not cause for celebration or self-congratulation; it’s simply how the House is supposed to work.  But because the Democratic majority that previously ran the House thumbed its nose at the notion of operating under such rules, the restoration of the practice under Speaker Boehner is worth noting.

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