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The Sausage Factory

Open House: How the House Can Reinvigorate the Amendment Process

Amending legislation is a critical power for legislators, since it offers the most direct means for Members of Congress to represent their district and address constituent needs. Despite the importance of amendments, Members of the House of Representatives have had fewer and fewer opportunities to offer them in the last few decades. For most major legislation, the House adopts special resolutions, called “special rules”, that determine how the Members will debate the bill, and throughout each Congress, the Chamber agrees to numerous resolutions that restrict or entirely forbid amendments. Since many Members of the House and congressional observers have frequently criticized restrictions on amendments, the House should consider ways to protect and strengthen Members’ ability to offer amendments. This paper explores how this can be done, focusing on three ways to reform:

  • Changing the Standing Rules of the House to require a supermajority vote to adopt closed or restrictive rules;
  • A top-down approach, where the majority leadership commits to refrain from using closed rules;
  • A bottom-up approach, where the House refuses to adopt closed rules.

Opening the amendment process has a number of difficulties, especially the potential for Members to abuse their powers. Each method of reforming the amendment process has its own weaknesses, too. These concerns are addressed in this paper.

Opening the amendment process is not a cure-all for congressional dysfunction. Although we work from the assumption that Representatives who have the opportunity to legislate are more cooperative, we still expect some Members to abuse their powers and offer “poison pill” and “campaign” amendments that are not seriously meant to improve the bill being debated. Members will, however, need to learn to refrain from such behaviors in order for open rules to succeed. Furthermore, opening the amendment process must be done in conjunction with other congressional reforms, like strengthening the committee system and promoting civility.

If Members of the House decide that it is in their best interests to open the amendment process, the best venue for considering how to do so is in the context of a new Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress. During the 20th century, Congress created three Joint Committees on the Organization of Congress (1945-1946, 1964-1965, 1992-1993) to study how to reform the legislative branch. The problem of closed rules was discussed during the last Joint Committee. With a new Joint Committee, Congress can pick up where they left off.

To read the full paper, click here.

Mark Strand is the President of the Congressional Institute and Timothy Lang is a research assistant. The Sausage Factory blog is a Congressional Institute project dedicated to explaining parliamentary procedure, Congressional politics, and other issues pertaining to the legislative branch.

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