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US house rules about much more than housekeeping

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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IMAGE: US House leaders will be thinking about the 'game being played' with the Senate, president and party factions when they adopt their rules of procedure in January, says political scientist... view more

Credit: L. Brian Stauffer, University of Illinois News Bureau

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- When the U.S. House of Representatives convenes in January, adopting rules of procedure will be among the first orders of business. Pretty mundane stuff, it would seem.

Pay attention, though, says Gisela Sin, the author of a new book that analyzes over a century of House procedural rule-making, up through 2013. Those rules, written by the majority party, will have a huge impact on what follows in Washington over the next two years.

And they will be written not just with the House in mind, as previous scholarship has suggested, but with an eye on the Senate, president and party factions, and on larger political goals, says Sin, a University of Illinois political scientist.

"When you say 'rules of procedure,' it sounds so boring, but these rules basically determine the distribution of power, who can do what," Sin said. "And by determining who can do what, you are determining outcomes."

Sin's book, "Separation of Powers and Legislative Organization: The President, the Senate, and Political Parties in the Making of House Rules", will be published this month by Cambridge University Press.

Previous research has focused on House rules as purely an internal matter, for the purposes of internal management, Sin said. But she analyzed 134 years of legislative history and concludes that many House rules are puzzling unless you examine the larger political environment in which House members operate.

In other words, the rules "depend on the game being played" among the House, Senate and president, as well as among the factions within the House majority, Sin said.

A most recent case in point: January 2011, when the Republicans had a new majority in the House, but Democrats still controlled the Senate and the White House. As part of their rule-making, the Republican leadership abolished the Gephardt rule that had long allowed for an automatic increase in the government's debt ceiling whenever Congress passed a budget resolution.

This forced House members to vote on this politically unpalatable matter, and gave the more-extreme tea party faction more power than their numbers would seem to dictate. The effect was to give the House Republican leadership more leverage in negotiations with the Senate and President Obama, and ultimately more of the budget cuts they wanted, in exchange for raising the debt ceiling.

"If they had not changed this rule, the outcome would have been completely different," Sin said.

Similarly, House Democrats with a new majority in January 2007 approved "pay-as-you-go" rules that helped them counter tax cut proposals from President Bush. Then that same Democratic majority significantly softened those rules in January 2009, as Obama, a fellow Democrat, was entering the White House.

Both cases of rule changes, by Republicans and Democrats, make sense only if you look beyond the House, Sin said.

Sin is a native of Argentina who came to the U.S. as a graduate student, and she believes that has influenced her take on the subject. "I think a lot of my insights come precisely from being from another country," she said, and from analyzing U.S. congressional history without any preconceived notions.

Sin thought it didn't make sense to focus solely on the House, since it can't make laws on its own. She also saw no analysis of House rule-making that considered factions within the House majority and the leadership's need to mollify or control them - even though she had seen the significant effect of multiple factions within the two main parties in Argentina.

To illustrate her point, Sin analyzed the famous revolt in 1910 against House Speaker Joseph Cannon, a conservative Republican from Danville, Illinois, considered perhaps the most powerful speaker of the House in U.S. history. (Sin's research benefitted from access to Cannon's archives in nearby Springfield, Illinois.)

The standard view of that revolt against Cannon's leadership, Sin said, has been that the progressive Republicans who led it had simply grown tired of the speaker's authoritarian ways. But "Tsar Cannon," as many knew him, had been speaker for six years, and Sin wondered why those Republicans had waited so long.

Instead, Sin suggests, it was the change of Republican presidents a year earlier that made the difference - a change from the progressive Theodore Roosevelt to the more conservative William Howard Taft. Conservative legislation that had been stymied under Roosevelt was now becoming law, and so progressive Republicans aligned with Democrats to change the rules and restrict some of Cannon's power.

Significantly, however, those rule changes were relatively modest and Cannon remained as speaker, Sin said. But the effect was that the legislation passing Congress became more moderate.

In other words, the revolt and the rules changes were not just concerned with a speaker's dictatorial tendencies, but with larger legislative goals, Sin said. "My explanation is that the change in the president was crucial. Before, they didn't care about having a dictatorial speaker when that speaker was pushing the bills they wanted. But now that this speaker was pushing very conservative bills, they really cared about that, and that's why the revolt."

Observers of Congress need to consider the same larger picture when looking at House rule-making today, Sin said. Legislators are interested in outcomes, and how they make the rules is a critical part of that.

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