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Bottom-up filters for floor amendments in the House of Representatives

Leaders of the U.S. House of Representatives have struggled to restore a more open amendment process when legislation comes to the floor. 

The House would benefit from more deliberation. Every member represents about the same number of Americans, and a successful Congress would draw much more on their distributed knowledge to make policy. After all, committees aren’t perfect microcosms of House members, and members often have ideas to improve legislation from committees other than those on which they serve. 

Yet not every amendment is equally worth considering. In principle, filtering out low-value ideas could improve the costs and benefits of floor amendments. Yet the mechanisms matter. 

Traditionally, the House Rules Committee, committees of jurisdiction, and leadership offices have coordinated to decide which amendments will get considered and which won’t. That top-down approach has bred mistrust with the minority party and minority factions within the majority party. 

The House could instead develop collaborative, bottom-up strategies for members to discover which floor amendments are most worthy of each other’s time and attention. “Special rules” might adjust the details from one bill to another. Such a rule-of-law framework could facilitate a productive and inclusive amendment process that empowers members to develop proposals and postures that can attract the support of colleagues. 

Meeting thresholds for organizational and coalition-building efforts would signal amendments’ viability and value on the House floor. Floor time is scarcer than committee time and affects all members. Committee markups have traditionally been open to all offered amendments, and that practice should continue to work well there. 

Bottom-up floor amendment filters could take many forms. Through the Rules Committee, the House could deploy the following options – and perhaps others – separately or in combination.  

  • Minimum number of cosponsors: The simplest option would be a minimum number of cosponsors to get an amendment made in order. If enough members won’t put their names on an amendment, that signals a lower chance of success. On the other hand, minimum thresholds could promote a culture of members backing each other’s amendments as favors more than due to the policy in question, particularly in connection with large member organizations. 
  • Bipartisan cosponsors: Another approach would advance amendments with a certain number of cosponsors of both parties. Bipartisan amendments might require a lower aggregate number of cosponsors than partisan amendments. Depending on the issue, this could empower the center as well as the wings. On the other hand, regional, constituency-based, and other idiosyncratic shared interests may indicate narrow common interests rather than broad consensus. 
  • Per-member sponsor/cosponsor caps: Each member could be limited to offering one or a few amendments, depending on the measure’s length and scope. In some states, legislators can only introduce a limited number of bills. Similarly, if combined with cosponsor thresholds, each member might only be able to cosponsor a certain number of amendments. This scarcity would encourage each member to weigh priorities and prospects carefully. It would, however, artificially limit opportunities for members with many amendments for a bill, unless they could persuade like-minded colleagues to propose their ideas. 
  • Points system: Each member could have a limited number of “points” to use per bill, which could vary with the bill’s size and scope. Sponsoring an amendment could use more points than cosponsoring one, and members could decide how to allocate them between their own priorities and in support of other members’ amendments. 
  • Overall limit on amendment consideration: This approach would set a numerical limit on the total number of amendments that would get votes. It could vary with a bill’s length or scope. The most popular amendments as measured by one or more of the methods above would get votes. 

Each option has advantages and disadvantages, but one or more could create objective standards for amendment consideration on the House floor while promoting more productive debate. As many members of the House seem to understand, a fully open amendment process may have more costs than benefits. So may the traditional leadership-driven model. 

Bottom-up floor amendment filtering could complement other upgrades. Providing enough space for coalition building may require additional time between scheduling a bill for the floor and closing the amendment cosponsor window. In addition, supports for the authorization process and better budget approaches could help Congress manage programs more effectively.  

With experimentation, deliberation, and fine-tuning, the House of Representatives could discover better ways to structure amendment consideration. This could, in turn, rebuild trust and restore a truly representative institution that is far more capable of solving problems for the American people. 

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