Thursday, November 27th, 2014

GOP moving the needle on Pledge-O-Meter

House Speaker John Boehner speaks at a Republican Leadership press conference on March 15, 2011.
House Speaker John Boehner speaks at a Republican Leadership press conference on March 15, 2011.

Republicans made a number of rules changes when they took control of Congress in January. Some of them addressed promises made by Republican leaders in the lead-up to the mid-term elections, and when they did, we dutifully moved the needle of the Pledge-O-Meter to In the Works. But, as we did when President Barack Obama instituted a number of new rules in early 2009, we decided to wait awhile to see how some of the rules played out before reaching a ruling.

Now, with Congress now three months into the session, we decided the time was right to rate a few of GOP promises.

Eliminate congressional resolutions to honor individuals and groups

During the 2010 campaign, House Republican leaders promised to "eliminate expressions of appreciation and recognition for individuals, groups, events, and institutions." The targets of this promise are non-binding resolutions that the House and Senate have historically taken up to commemorate someone or some event.

When the House Republican Conference met in December 2010, prior to officially taking control of the chamber, it passed a rule that, "The Republican Leader shall not schedule, or request to have scheduled, any bill or resolution for consideration under suspension of the Rules which … expresses appreciation, commends, congratulates, celebrates, recognizes the accomplishments of, or celebrates the anniversary of, an entity, event, group, individual, institution, team or government program; or acknowledges or recognizes a period of time for such purposes."

The way the House runs its affairs, the majority has full control over the scheduling of when and how bills are considered, meaning that the GOP conference rules effectively guide this practice.

Just to be sure, we checked to make sure that no commemorative bills had slipped by. Looking through the bills considered in the House so far this year, we didn"t find any that seemed purely commemorative in nature. (Some votes on naming buildings were held, but those are binding votes, which are not held under suspension of the rules.) And so, with rated it a Promise Kept.

Require bills to include a clause citing its authority in the Constitution

This is another promise for which we took a wait-and-see approach after Republicans included it in their new rules package.

The constitutional justification does not appear in the actual text of a bill, but it can be found in the Congressional Record after a bill has been introduced. The way the rule is written, no bill can be considered unless it includes a justification. If a bill does not contain a statement citing the constitutional authority, the clerk's office sends it back to the sponsoring member's office with a request to add the citation.

To check the promise, PolitiFact staffers examined dozens of constitutional justifications. We found that the statements vary in content, largely because Republican leaders did not specify a standardized format when they enacted the rule. But they were there.

Experts in congressional procedure say the impact is only symbolic. David W. Rohde, a Duke University political scientist, for example, said, "If you had a category for Promise Kept But Utterly Trivial, it would fit."

We won't create the new category Rohde suggests, but we do think that, whatever the promise's larger value, the Republican majority has stuck to its word and presided over widespread adoption of this practice. So we rated it a Promise Kept.

Webcast committee meetings

This promise came via a speech on congressional reform made by Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, on Sept. 30, 2010, as part of his "Pillars of a New Majority."  Boehner said Republicans would "require that all committees — especially the Rules Committee — webcast their proceedings and post complete transcripts online — with obvious exceptions for those panels dealing with state secrets and classified information."

We moved this promise to In the Works after the GOP passed a new House rules package, including a rule stated that, "To the maximum extent practicable, each committee shall (A) provide audio and video coverage of each hearing or meeting for the transaction of business in a manner that allows the public to easily listen to and view the proceedings; and (B) maintain the recordings of such coverage in a manner that is easily accessible to the public."

The Rules committee now has cameras in the hearing rooms, and, if you go to the House Rules website, you'll find a whole video archive of hearings.

But this was a two-part promise. The second part was to make transcripts available online. They aren't.

Unofficial transcripts are readily available upon request, provided the person making the request signs a release acknowledging that the transcript is unofficial and that, if the applicant wants to quote something from a hearing, he or she should listen to the online webcast or check with the office of the legislator.

The unofficial transcripts aren't fully accurate, and "we don't feel comfortable putting something inaccurate online," said Jo Maney, a spokeswoman for House Rules Committee Republicans. And due to the volume of hearings, the Rules committee simply doesn't have enough staff resources to produce official transcripts that could be posted online, she said.

Webcasts may have been the meat of this promise -- and that has been satisfied -- but unless or until all congressional committees post transcripts online, we rated this promise a Compromise.

Publish the text of bills online at least three days before a House vote

It's not an unfamiliar theme: Politicians don't like keeping promises about open government when a quick political victory is within grasp.

Back in 2009, it was President Barack Obama who signed laws for fair pay, children's health insurance and credit card reforms without first posting the legislation to the Internet for five days. His "sunlight before signing" campaign promise is still rated Promise Broken.

Last week, Republicans fast-tracked legislation to curtail funding for National Public Radio after Internet activist James O'Keefe distributed an edited video that appeared to show an NPR fundraising executive making disparaging remarks about the tea party movement, among other things.

On Tuesday, House Republicans posted legislation to the Rules Committee website. On Thursday, they brought it to the floor and voted for it.

Republicans said they were adhering to their own House rules, which state that legislation can't be considered until the third calendar day. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday constitute three calendar days, according to their reasoning.

Still, during the campaign Republicans sometimes referred to a 72-hour rule for posting legislation. And the nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation charged that the NPR funding measure broke pledges to post bills for 72 hours online before consideration, which means before debate begins. By that measure, the Republicans certainly fell short.

We looked for other measures that may have violated three-day rule, but we didn't find any.

In considering our ruling, we found the NPR legislation was clearly fast-tracked. By a narrow definition of the House rules, it was posted during three calendar days. But it fell short of being posted for a full 72-hour, three-day airing that "by publishing the text online for at least three days before coming up for a vote in the House of Representatives" suggests. The Republicans may be adhering to the letter of their rule, but they've violated the spirit of not rushing through legislation. So we rate this promise Stalled for now and will monitor how they do with future bills before making a final ruling.

Cancel unspent stimulus

This promise has not been kept yet, but the GOP majority has made progress toward enacting it.

Language to fulfill the promise was inserted in H.R. 1, the "Full-Year Continuing Appropriations Act of 2011." Specifically, a provision in the bill says, "There are hereby rescinded all unobligated balances remaining available as of February 11, 2011, of the discretionary appropriations provided by division A of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act 21 of 2009."

On Feb. 19, 2011, H.R. 1 cleared the House on a largely party line vote, 235-189. Since passage, H.R. 1 has been up in the air, as the House, the Senate and the president have agreed to a series of short-term "continuing resolutions" to keep the government going, rather than approving a more sweeping and longer-term spending bill. The provision on unspent stimulus funds was not included in the continuing resolutions.

Lawmakers will continue to work on a longer term spending bill under the threat of a government shutdown if legislation is not enacted. That will keep this promise in limbo for an undetermined period of time. But the fact that language to fulfill the promise has already passed the House earns it an In the Works.

Codify Hyde Amendment to prohibit federal funding of abortion

On Jan. 20, 2011, Rep. Christopher Smith, R-N.J. -- one of the House"s leading opponents of abortion -- introduced H.R. 3, the "No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act." According to a Congressional Research Service summary of the bill, it would, among other things, prohibit "the expenditure of funds authorized or appropriated by federal law or funds in any trust fund to which funds are authorized or appropriated by federal law ... for any abortion," except for the same exceptions allowed by the Hyde Amendment.

When we checked in THOMAS, Congress' legislative website, on March 25, 2011, we found that the bill had already secured 221 co-sponsors -- enough to win approval in the House once it's taken up. However, the bill is still in committee. The House Judiciary Committee signed off on it on a 23-14 vote, but the House Ways and Means Committee has asked for more time to consider it. If approved by the House, it has to go to the Senate, and if adopted there, it has to be reconciled between both chambers before moving to the president's desk.

In other words, there's still a long way to go before H.R. 3 becomes law -- and the debate is sure to be contentious at every stop. However, a bill has been introduced, has passed a major House committee and has secured a large number of co-sponsors. This is enough for us to rate it In the Works.