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Balance of Power

At Least One Bipartisan Vote: House Needs Modernizing

While the partisan standoff that's pushed the government shutdown into a third week is getting the bulk of the media's attention, an unusual glimmer of bipartisanship marked the start of the new Congress.

Setting the rules for operating the House of Representatives is traditionally an entirely party-line affair, with the majority party unified in dictating the terms and the minority party just as unified in resisting. But not this year.

In what appears to be a first in modern times, part of the new rules package was overwhelmingly approved Friday, 418-12, the only "no" votes coming from a clutch of the most combative Republican conservatives. The provision, which creates a Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, was welcomed by lawmakers from across the ideological spectrum who view the House's internal procedures, technologies and work culture as contributing to the Capitol's dysfunction.

And on Thursday, when the bulk of the new House rules were approved, 234-197, the package won the support of three centrist Republicans who had pressed for several of the provisions in the hope of improving transparency and promoting consensus-building in the legislative process: Tom Reed and John Katko of New York and Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania.

At the same time, three progressive Democrats opposed the entire package because of its pay-as-you-go language requiring tax increases or offsetting spending cuts in House legislation expanding social safety net programs: Ro Khanna of California, Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York.

The special panel's jurisdiction, the new rules say, is "policies to develop the next generation of leaders; staff recruitment, diversity, retention, and compensation and benefits; administrative efficiencies, including purchasing, travel, outside services, and shared administrative staff; technology and innovation; and the work of the House Commission on Congressional Mailing Standards," the organization that monitors lawmakers' official communications with their constituents to assure they do not become de facto campaign propaganda.

"Many will decry the select committee as a half measure unlikely to produce real results, but its establishment is a signal from leadership that the congressional reform movement has gained enough traction to warrant internal study," said Casey Burgat of the R Street Institute, a generally conservative think tank that studies ways to make Congress work better.

A 2017 survey of senior Capitol Hill staffers by the independent Congressional Management Foundation found only 6 percent were very satisfied with the Hill's technical infrastructure, for example, and only 15 percent very content that the congressional workforce had the requisite knowledge, skills and abilities to support the membership.

The committee will have six members from each party and its recommendations, which are due by the end of the year, will need the support of eight lawmakers in order to advance to the full House. The chairman will be Derek Killmer, who is beginning his fourth term representing Washington's Olympic Peninsula and is also the incoming chairman of the centrist New Democrat Coalition.

The rare burst of bipartisanship in setting the House rules is almost certain to disappear when lawmakers vote next week on a final provision, which would authorize the House's lawyers to get involved in the appeal of a federal judge's ruling in Texas last month declaring the Affordable Care Act unconstitutional. As has distinguished nearly a full decade of debate since the first Obamacare bill moved through the House, not a single GOP lawmaker is inclined to vote to stick up for the law.

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