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Democrats Vote To Change House Rules After Taking Control Of Chamber


Democrats took control of the House of Representatives this week, and they're already changing the rules. Every new Congress, the majority rewrites the rules that govern the chamber, and this time those rules affect everything from raising the debt ceiling to combating climate change. NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis is tracking all of the changes. Welcome to the studio.


CORNISH: So what are the most significant changes that Democrats are making here?

DAVIS: Two things that Democrats are doing aimed at essentially eliminating two of the major confrontations we saw under the Republican majority - the first is they made it a lot easier to raise the debt ceiling, the nation's borrowing limit. We've seen this fiscal confrontation come up multiple times in recent years. Essentially what House Democrats are saying now is if they just pass a budget, it makes the debt ceiling raise through the fiscal year. It takes away the need to have a separate vote on the House floor to do that.

The other thing they did is they changed the rules to make it harder to question the speaker's grip on power in office, something that threatened John Boehner's speakership, that ultimately forced him out. They changed the rules to say one member can no longer bring that to a question on the floor. You would now need a majority of an entire party ready to throw out the speaker to make it happen. That has the essential effect of neutralizing those two issues in the next Congress.

CORNISH: In the area of climate change, what kind of rule can they make that'll indicate that's a priority?

DAVIS: One thing that's changing legislatively is that Democrats are much more interested in making climate change a driving agenda issue of this Congress. One thing they did in this rules package is they've created a new committee that is tasked exclusively with looking at ways to combat climate change. There's been some grumbling within the party among progressives, notably Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the New Democrat from New York, saying the committee doesn't have enough teeth; it won't have subpoena power; it can't bring bills to the floor. But it is tasked with coming up with legislation that Democratic leaders say will get a vote in the next Congress.

CORNISH: I understand there are also stricter ethics rules. What are some of the changes there?

DAVIS: So they are making it an annual requirement for all lawmakers to take ethics training now. Now, it used to be when you were newly elected, you were one and done. Now they say you have to do it every single year, including senior staff. They have also added something that you might have thought was already banned, but it is not. Lawmakers are no longer allowed to sit on corporate boards. Lawmakers had been allowed to do that previously as long as they didn't take any compensation. It's a little bit of a nod to the fact that there is a sitting congressman, Chris Collins from New York, who is under indictment right now for committing securities fraud as he sat on the board of a pharmaceutical company.

It speaks to the fact that Democrats, I think, are trying to make good government, anti-corruption, campaign finance the main symbolic driving issue of this Congress. They've designated H.R. 1, the first bill of the Congress, to addressing all of those issues. And the rules package is a reflection of that. It kind of reflects the priority of where they want the next two years to go.

DAVIS: A little less serious - the dress code. What's going on there?

CORNISH: Yeah, so Ilhan Omar is one of the women that won in the blue wave of 2018. She is one of two Muslim women who - first ever elected to Congress. She also wears a hijab, the head covering traditional in the faith. And House rules had never really accounted for this before. This isn't something that they've had to confront.

Currently the House rules say you can't wear a hat on the House floor. That's come up occasionally when members want to wear a baseball cap or something else, but they hadn't been confronted with the issue of religious freedom. So they have made sure that the House accommodates for the fact that religious headwear can now be wore on the floor of the House of Representatives.

CORNISH: That's NPR's congressional correspondent Susan Davis. Thank you for the update.

DAVIS: You're very welcome. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.