Dems' New Rules in the House: New Modernization Committee, Allowance of Religious Head Coverings

Rep. James P. McGovern (D-Mass.), the top Democrat on the House Rules Committee

WASHINGTON -- House Democrats began the 116th Congress by unveiling a series of rules changes for the lower chamber, including rules to ban discrimination in Congress on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity and allowances for religious head coverings.

The opening day of the new Congress is Thursday, when lawmakers will vote on the new speaker of the House.

The rules package, unveiled on New Year's Day by House Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), will be voted on by the Democratic majority after the new Congress convenes.

The rules established Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi's (D-Calif.) Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, which she told colleagues in a Sunday letter "will spearhead our effort to engage the American people on the urgency of the climate crisis on public health, on reducing air pollution, on the economy for America to be preeminent in green technologies, on national security to facing climate-driven conflict and instability, and on our sacred moral responsibility to protect God’s creation for our children."

"I am also pleased that the Rules package will create a Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, to advance leadership development, to promote diversity and to maximize technology and innovation," Pelosi wrote. "Recognizing that the legislative branch is Article I, the first branch of government, co-equal to and a check and balance on the Executive and the Judiciary, the committees’ charge is to work together in a bipartisan way to strengthen our institution. We are confident that the select committee will help our transformative new Congress, blessed by such a large freshman class, to get results for the American people in a way that honors the vision of our Founders in the Constitution."

Democrats will eliminate the Holman Rule, which was reinstated in January 2017 and allows appropriations amendments to reduce pay for specific federal employees, and will restore voting rights for delegates from the District of Columbia, American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Northern Mariana Islands to vote in certain situations.

They'll also be changing the name of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce back to Education and Labor, a regular back-and-forth tussle with GOP and Dem control of the House. The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee will simply become the Oversight and Reform Committee.

The new rules will include a minimum of 72 hours for members to read bills before votes, require a hearing and markup on any bills that pass through the Rules Committee, and "create a consensus calendar to expedite consideration of measures with broad bipartisan support."

Lawmakers will be required to annually undergo ethics training and would be prohibited from serving on corporate boards. Members indicted for "serious crimes" would have to give up leadership roles and committee posts.

The Gephardt Rule, which automatically raises the debt ceiling when the House passes a budget, will be revived. Dems would also put the brakes on privatization of federal lands, requiring a review of budgetary impact.

Whereas current rules ban "a hat" being worn in the chamber, the Dems' version inserts the phrase "non-religious headdress or" before that.

There are two Muslim women in the 116th Congress: Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.); only Omar covers her hair.

The new rules also create a diversity office to "facilitate a workforce that reflects members and the districts they represent," and creates a House Financial Services subcommittee to "oversee diversity and inclusion within the financial services space."

McGovern said the rules package is "the result of unprecedented consultation across our caucus and the Congress," with "every Member for their ideas, from the longest-serving to the newly elected" in a process lasting months.

"This package is stronger because of such a collaborative process. We are proposing historic changes that will modernize Congress, restore regular order and bring integrity back to this institution," he said. "It unrigs the rules so the People’s House actually works for the people again. Americans demanded a new direction, and this rules package will immediately usher in a new era for this Congress."