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A New Congress Begins

January 5, 2009 - by Donny Shaw

Today marks the official beginning of the new session of Congress! Members of the 111th Congress in both the Senate and House will begin their swearing in ceremonies at noon. In the Senate, the thing to watch will be what happens with the seating of Roland Burris, embattled Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich’s pick to fill Barack Obama’s Senate seat. Apparently, Burris will be watching the swearing in ceremony from Senator Durbin’s office next to the Senate chamber, and he’ll be meeting with Durbin and Majority Leader Reid on Wednesday to try to negotiate a deal under which he can be sworn in. On the House side, they’ll be voting on the House Rules Package for the 111th Congress, which will make several changes to House operating procedure, a few of them major. Exciting!

Here are the changes in the rules package, per this fact sheet (pdf) from the office of the Majority Leader:

  • Closing the loophole that allowed ‘lame duck’ Members to negotiate employment contracts in secret to ensure full transparency in future negotiations.
  • Removing reference to term limits for Committee Chairs from this package to remove political considerations from the official Rules of the House. Term limits were originally incorporated into the House rules by Republicans in 1995, and as a result, elevated fundraising as a prerequisite for election to Chair.
  • Making commonsense changes to the motion to recommit that preserve the Minority’s legitimate right to present policy alternatives while denying them the abusive practice of subverting the work of Congress by working to kill key measures that have broad, bipartisan support from the American people by raising unrelated amendments for the sole purpose of scoring political points.
  • Codifying additional budget earmark reforms adopted mid-term in the 110th Congress resulting in even further transparency and accountability in the earmark process.
  • Maintaining strong PAYGO rules that will help restore fiscal discipline.

More details about the rule changes can be found in this section by section summary (pdf) from the House Committee on Rules. There’s actually quite a bit more in the package than what is mentioned in the Majority Leader’s summary, most of it pretty minor. There are a few interesting things, though. For example, the “gender neutrality” provision, which, two years after the election of the first female Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, amends the House Rules to render them neutral with respect to gender.

House Republicans have said that they will “”">vigorously oppose" the rules package over concerns with the committee chairmen term limit change and the change to the motion to recommit. But with the Democrats’ expanded majority, Republicans have no real chance of stopping the changes from taking effect.

Here’s the schedule for the rest of the week:

>On Wednesday, the House will meet at 10:00 a.m. On Thursday, the House will meet at 10:00 a.m. and recess until approximately 1:00 p.m. for the Joint Session of Congress to count the electoral ballots for the President and Vice President of the United States. On Friday, the House is expected to meet at 10:00 a.m.
>Suspensions (2 bills):
>1)H.R.__ – Presidential Library Donation Reform Act (Rep. Towns – Oversight and Government Reform)
>2)H.R.__ – Presidential Records Act (Rep. Towns – Oversight and Government Reform)
>H.R. 11 – Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act (Rep. George Miller (CA) – Education and Labor) (Subject to a Rule)

>H.R. 12 – Paycheck Fairness Act (Rep. DeLauro – Education and Labor) (Subject to a Rule)

Links to the above bills go to pages on OpenCongress for their counterparts in the previous 110th Congress. Bills in their 111th format will begin appearing on OpenCongress later this week. As far as I know, the text of these four bills will be exactly the same as they were in the last session. The only thing that will change about them will be the numbers they are assigned.

All of these bills were passed by the House last session, but never made it out of the Senate. Sunlight Foundation’s Paul Blumenthal has some more background on the first two suspension bills:

>The Presidential Library Reform Donation Reform Act and the Presidential Records Act Amendments both constitute important transparency reforms. The Presidential Library Donation Reform Act requires Presidential Libraries to disclose their contributors (this would be done electronically on the National Archives site). The Presidential Records Act Amendments would reverse a Bush Administration Executive Order that currently keeps presidential records hidden from the public indefinitely. Both of these bills passed the House in the previous session of Congress only to be stymied by the Minority in the Senate.
>The Presidential Library disclosure bill was blocked in committee after Sen. Ted Stevens voiced his opposition based on what he called an unfair burden it would place on President George W. Bush’s current Presidential Library fundraising by mandating disclosure. The PRA Amendments were blocked by, not one, but two holds holds placed first by Sen. Jim Bunning and then Sen. Jeff Sessions. Hopefully, the Senate can work to pass these two important bills.

And just to make sure we’ve got our bearing straight, here are the party-summary stats for the 111th Congress:

Senate: Democrats 59 – 41 Republicans
House: Democrats 257 – 178 Republicans

We’ve got quite a bit of major legislation to look forward to in this new session – a $775 billion economic stimulus package, a timeline for withdrawing troops from Iraq, the first ever climate change bill, federal funding for stem cell research, and much, much more. Make sure you’re subscribed to this blog’s RSS feed as we have some major announcements coming in the next few weeks about new tools for tracking Congress and taking action to affect legislation.

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