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House Votes to Change Rule to Help Move Bills

September 29, 1993|WILLIAM J. EATON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The House voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to change a 61-year-old rule that has helped powerful congressional leaders and committee chairmen prevent legislation from coming to a vote on the House floor.

The decision may clear the way for House votes on constitutional amendments designed to limit the terms of lawmakers and to require a balanced budget, as well as other controversial proposals with wide popular support that have been tied up in congressional committees.

Under the measure, approved 389 to 40, the names of House members who sign so-called discharge petitions--which are used by lawmakers to pry bills loose from committees that do not want to act on them--no longer will be kept secret.

Opponents of the secrecy rule--applied only when the signers do not have the necessary majority for a discharge petition--argued that lawmakers were able to appear to favor legislation publicly when they actually opposed it and had refused to sign discharge petitions.

Committees--or more accurately the House's powerful committee chairmen--have been able to prevent action on bills that they do not support by simply refusing to act and send them to the House floor.

Until Tuesday's vote, a rule adopted in 1932 required that the names of lawmakers signing the petitions be kept secret. Proponents of the secrecy rule had argued that it helped shield lawmakers from undue pressure from special interests.

"There are too many members who want to use this (procedure) to influence the agenda," said Rep. Joe Moakley (D-Mass.), chairman of the House Rules Committee. "It's too easy to whip up a frenzy of public sentiment based on irresponsible sloganeering."

Rep. Scott L. Klug (R-Wis.) and other advocates of the change said that it would produce greater accountability.

"When committee chairmen bottle up bills for years, what other choice do we have?" Klug asked. "Polls show 70% (of Americans) support term limits but we can't even get a hearing on the issue."

The proposal, sponsored by Rep. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), was pulled out of the House Rules Committee by a discharge petition signed by all but two House Republicans and 44 Democrats, producing the required 218-vote majority to bring the bill to the floor.

While Democratic leaders at first considered all-out opposition to the disclosure or revising the rules for discharge petitions to require more than a majority, they eventually decided not to fight the change.

Even so, Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) and other Democrats warned that they would seek to alter the rules for discharge petitions if Republicans try to use them to control the House agenda.

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