McGovern outlines plans as chairman of rules committee

  • Congressman James McGovern, now Democratic chairman of the powerful House Rules Committee. File photo

Staff Writer
Published: 1/4/2019 11:47:38 PM

Before ever being elected to office, U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Worcester, recognized the House Rules Committee as one of the most powerful places in Congress, positioned to influence almost any bill on almost any subject. 

McGovern, now in his 12th term, assumed the position of House Rules Committee chairman Thursday at the start of the 116th Congress.

As chairman, McGovern will be directly involved in changing legislation, deciding whether bills can be amended and resolving jurisdictional disputes among other committees. He began the role by introducing a new rules package he says will help further a progressive agenda while fostering a functional House.

“(The Rules Committee) is the traffic cop of Congress. All major legislation goes through the Rules Committee before it goes to the House floor for debate,” McGovern said Friday during a break in a busy second day leading the committee. “Whether the issue is climate change, or making sure we deal with our crumbling infrastructure, or whether it’s protecting people’s health care, the Rules Committee plays an important role in making sure Democratic priorities, my priorities, are front and center.”

McGovern’s rules package reforms House procedures by prohibiting members and their staff from serving on corporate boards, which he said will “close the conflict of interest loophole,” as well as establishing a 72-hour rule requiring bills be available publicly for 72 hours before going to the House floor, so members can read and analyze them before voting. Bills also cannot go through the Rules Committee without already having a hearing in the appropriate committee, McGovern said.

The rules package also explicitly bans discrimination within the House on the basis of sexual orientation, gender and religion. Now the new rules state religious headwear should be allowed to be worn in the House chamber — and creates a “diversity office” so that “people who work here on Capitol Hill look like our country,” McGovern said. 

The rules package also creates a Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, which McGovern said will help Congress respond to an “enormous challenge.”

“The bottom line is we have a climate change crisis, and we have a president that doesn’t believe climate change is real and we used to have a Republican House that didn’t believe climate change is real. That’s changing,” McGovern said. 

McGovern criticized the previous, Republican-led House as “a place where trivial issues get debated passionately and important ones not at all,” and called it closed and nontransparent. 

The new rules package, he said, will foster transparency and was developed with the input of a large, diverse group of members of Congress. 

“What we did was kind of unprecedented. In the past, when rules packages were put together, in various Congresses under both Democrats and Republicans, average rank-and-file members weren’t part of the process,” McGovern said, characterizing previous rules packages as created in “backroom” deals.

“We did hundreds of meetings with individual members, with caucus leaders. I even sat down with Republicans and said, ‘Give me your advice. How can we make this place work better?’ We talked to everybody from the Progressive Caucus, to the Black Caucus, to the Hispanic Caucus, to the Blue Dogs, you name it,” McGovern said. “And so we have a package that reflects all of their input.”

McGovern’s first job on Capitol Hill was working for former U.S. Rep. Joseph Moakley, D-Boston, who chaired the House Rules Committee from 1989 to 1995. Moakley died of cancer in 2001 while still in office, but left McGovern with a lasting impression as a role model and some words about his future position.

“He was on the Rules Committee, he was chair of the committee and I’m on the committee because when Joe Moakley and I were serving together as colleagues, he was gravely ill and called me up and said, ‘I need you to serve on the Rules Committee,’” McGovern said. “He says, ‘I was on the Rules Committee and I want somebody from Massachusetts on the committee, and you’re the right person because you know about the committee. You know what the possibilities are.’

“I saw Moakley use his chairmanship to do good things,” he continued. “A lot of times people see the Rules Committee as procedure and process, but it’s more than that. It’s also about policy. Moakley helped push major pro-immigration legislation through the Rules Committee. He was the author of the temporary protected status provision that protected hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans fleeing civil war in the 1980s.”

McGovern said he will follow Moakley in being an “accommodating chairman,” and looks to bring “more ideas to the floor,” including ones he doesn’t necessarily agree with.

“He (Moakley) used to say some people think power is the ability to say, ‘No,’ but he said power needs to be the ability to say, ‘Yes.’ We should be saying, ‘Yes,’ to people, we should be helping people bring their ideas to the floor and we should have even ideas that we don’t necessarily agree with. We ought not to rig the system. He’s the kind of leader that I aspire to,” McGovern said.

For his constituents – residents of a large swatch of central and eastern Franklin County and the North Quabbin Region—  McGovern said his position as chairman of the House Rules Committee will allow him to shepherd bills that help western Massachusetts residents — specifically infrastructure, environment and workers’-protections bills.

“In my position on the Rules Committee, I’m going to be able to be a protector of western Massachusetts,” McGovern said. “By that I mean I’m going to make sure that nothing is moving forward that’s going to adversely impact my constituents or the commonwealth of Massachusetts.”

Reach David McLellan at or 413-772-0261, ext. 268. 


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