New House Majority Introduces Rules Changes

On the opening day of the 112th Congress, the House debated changes in the rules that will govern House operations for the next two years. The biggest change involves how Congress spends money. NPR congressional correspondent Andrea Seabrook talks to host Robert Siegel about what Republicans have in mind.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

The incoming majority has made some significant changes to the rules of the House, and NPR's Andrea Seabrook is here to explain them.

Hiya.

ANDREA SEABROOK: Hiya.

SIEGEL: And first, the biggest change has to do with how the Congress spends money.

SEABROOK: Absolutely. There used to be - or there is currently in statute a law called pay-as-you-go. That meant that the Congress had to pay for the new programs that it put in place.

Now, the new Republicans are calling it cut-as-you-go. They have to offset all of new spending and cannot increase taxes of any kind to offset that. So they must find actual spending cuts. This allows them over time to ratchet down spending over and over again with every new program.

Now, the Democrats are really rankled by this, mostly because it doesn't apply in the rules to the health care law which does decrease the deficit over time. And the Republicans are going to vote next week to repeal the health care law, but they say the increase in the deficit that that will cause is not subject to this law, cut-as-you-go.

SIEGEL: Mm-hmm. Now, another change: The incoming chairman of the budget committee, Republican Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, will have new powers.

SEABROOK: Yes. Some of them are calling him the czar of the budget, the budget czar, because he will have unilateral power - this is unprecedented in Congress - to set the budget levels for each committee and each appropriations bill for this year, 2011 only. The reason for that is the Democrats didn't even pass a budget at all last year for this fiscal year that we're in right now. They didn't pass the budget. They didn't pass any appropriations bill.

So the Republicans are saying, well, we got to set levels and we have to start on fiscal year 2012 at the same time so we're just going to give the power to him. Of course, Democrats are saying this is completely undemocratic. There isn't a vote on giving this guy such high powers. So that's an interesting change right there.

SIEGEL: Now, the business of the Capitol is also going to change. No more National Train Day.

SEABROOK: No more National Train Day. No - the new speaker, Boehner, has designated in these rules a prohibition of all commemorative bills, so you'll never hear sort of the Springfield Wildcats...

(Soundbite of laughter)

SEABROOK: ...won their football game last Friday and we want to commemorate them in a vote in the Congress. No more National Pi Day.

SIEGEL: Pi.

SEABROOK: That pi, as in 3.14159 and so, and not pie as in pumpkin.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SEABROOK: And the Republicans have tallied up the votes for the last Congress and they say that fully a third of its business was these sort of commemorative bills. And leaders say they're a waste of time and they're not what the voters sent lawmakers to Washington to do.

SIEGEL: There's a smaller change: All bills are going to be posted online for three days before they go to the floor of the House.

SEABROOK: It's a smaller change, but it's one that could help Americans track better what's going on. And it's sort of a philosophical change. It used to be that if something was considered public, a paper copy of it was taken across the street to the document room. Now, the government is slowly turning to this new idea that if something is public, it means it's posted on the Internet and Americans have access to it.

SIEGEL: Now, some losers under the new rules would be delegates from American territories.

SEABROOK: Yes. American Samoa, the Northern Marianas Islands, the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia: the delegates from those places will no longer have any voting rights on the House floor. They had restricted voting rights before. The new Republican rules stripped them even of those.

SIEGEL: OK. Thank you, Andrea.

SEABROOK: You're welcome.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Andrea Seabrook.

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