January 26, 2024

Lars Erik Schönander


Despite its obscurity, the House rules package is essential to the operations of the House of Representatives. During the fight that led to former Speaker McCarthy’s ouster, prominent debates over Ukraine funding, border security, and budget cuts were underlain by procedural tactics made possible by the House rules and changes made at the start of the 118th Congress. But understanding these rules is extremely difficult, both because of their inherent complexity, and because the rules package changes every two years at the start of each new Congress. In fact, the return of the motion to vacate the chair, the very process that ousted McCarthy, was one of these changes, instituted after hardliners demanded it from him as a concession for their votes.

These periodic changes, combined with major turnover in congressional staff, make it difficult to build a lasting understanding of how the rules work, how the House operated in the past, and how it should operate in the future. Few Americans beyond House leadership and the Rules Committee staff understand it. Addressing this opacity and boosting Congress’s institutional strength will require giving members and their staff, and interested parties in civil society, new tools to help them understand “The People’s House.”

To begin to address this, I have built an AI-assisted learning tool, called RulesCompare, which allows users to easily compare rules from the 78th Congress to the 118th Congress (from 1943 to the present). The tool, supported by the Foundation for American Innovation, uses these data to make it easier for congressional staffers, or any civically minded citizen, to compare House rules packages, receive AI-assisted explanations, and download the underlying data. The tool lets a user select a pair of Congresses, and then pick a rule or subsection of a rule, to see what changed over time. A feature employing OpenAI’s large language model can then generate an explanation of the differences.

As an example of RulesCompare’s potential application, the tool could shed light on how revisions to the House rules have contributed to the centralization of power within the chamber over time, which has been an important driver of democratic dysfunction. For example, it is well-known that Newt Gingrich was a uniquely powerful Speaker of the House. But what made his centralization of power possible? In large part, it was Gingrich’s astute understanding of the rules, and his skill at both crafting and wielding them to his advantage. His changes to the House rules package included cutting the size of committee staff and setting term limits for committee chairmen, both of which intentionally created a power vacuum that an enterprising speaker could then fill. Today, someone could use RulesCompare to track Gingrich’s specific changes to the rules to understand how they granted him unprecedented influence in the chamber. These historical rules changes are obscure, but we are still living with the consequences, so they are worth making comprehensible to the public.

Today, improving the House will require following Gingrich’s lead in one respect—it will require a strong understanding of how the House rules work, and of how changing them can produce different outcomes, making RulesCompare of not just historical value, but also practical use. Only if they understand the House’s rules and their evolution will motivated congressmen and staffers be able to work towards a more functional House, in which every member can effectively participate in the legislative process, rather than being condemned to accept the decrees of party leadership.

Although RulesCompare’s features should already make it an effective tool for demystifying the House’s operations, future expansions to the program are intended to make it more useful. Along with the gradual addition of rules from older Congresses predating the 78th Congress, other intended future expansions include the addition of conference and caucus rules, as well as committee rules. The conference and caucus rules, which govern how Republicans and Democrats organize themselves within the House and Senate, were a crucial feature of last year’s scrambles for the speakership in January and October. Incorporating these rules into RulesCompare will make it easier to understand how caucuses and conferences vote for a speaker before presenting the winner for a vote on the House floor. For example, if Republicans today changed the process of voting for a speaker—as some attempted to do in October—RulesCompare could detail the changes in the Republican Conference rules. Another intended addition, a clearinghouse of rules reform recommendations, will make it easier to understand how both members of Congress and outside advocacy groups are working to revise the House rules package.

One does not need to be a scholar of Congress to recognize that the House is badly in need of fixing today. Helping the public and policymakers alike understand how it works will be an essential first step towards achieving a more functional chamber.

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