House Democrats voted to approve part of its new rules package Thursday evening, sending a message about ethics, sexual harassment and good government on their first day back in the majority, a signal of how they intend to target President Donald Trump in the coming session.
As part of a routine resolution laying out the protocols for how the House will operate, the rules package outlines sexual harassment guidelines, says that lawmakers who have been indicted for serious crimes should resign from committee and leadership roles, and bars lawmakers and staffers from serving on corporate boards, among other things.
In her opening remarks, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said that an upcoming legislative package of ethics reforms would “restore integrity to government, so that people can have confidence that government works for the public interest, not the special interests.”
The vote comes as Democrats begin oversight of everything from White House security clearances to the child separation policy at the border, and continue investigations into the 2016 election and potential conflicts of interest related to Trump’s businesses.
But with the Trump Administration facing an unusually high number of scandals, Democrats see an opening to differentiate themselves.
Matt Glassman, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Government Affairs Institute, said that things like the House rules with key ethics components will be one of the ways Democrats are actually able to get that message out.
“Given that it’s going to be difficult for them to pass legislation — just controlling the House and not the Senate or the Presidency — they really want to sharpen their message over the next two years,” he told TIME. “The message being that the Trump Administration and the Republicans are corrupt, and there’s also ethics violations, so we’re cleaning up the House of Representatives first because that’s what we have to do, and we’re going to try and clean up the Executive branch through oversight of the departments. And then you should vote for us in 2020, because then we’ll have the power to control the government and clean it up in total.”
Talking points circulated by the National Republican Congressional Committee indicated that the rules package would prove tricky for the GOP.
Since Republicans largely voted against the rules package, that meant they might face tough questions about voting against a rule to allow the Speaker to intervene in a legal case on pre-existing conditions, a rule that would ban discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity and a rule barring sexual relationships between lawmakers and staffers of committees on which they serve, among other “red flags” highlighted in an email to GOP lawmakers acquired by TIME.
The email suggested that Republicans counter by noting that the rules also reinstated a rule that automatically raises the debt ceiling when the House passes a budget and removed budget offset requirements, which the GOP says would make it “easier to raise taxes and increase spending.”
Some of the rules are set to bring the House of Representatives up to standards the Senate already enforces. One of which is the ban on corporate board membership. Sen. Sherrod Brown advocated in favor of the proposed House rule via Twitter on Wednesday. In a follow-up statement to TIME, the Ohio Democrat currently mulling a 2020 presidential campaign said legislators should not be using their statuses for personal gain.
“Members of Congress are serving the American people, not their stock portfolios,” he said. “After multiple scandals in which members of Congress have been found buying and selling stocks in certain industries, it’s time for more accountability and transparency.”
The rules aren’t necessarily binding, however.
One proposed guideline would require Members to be given 72 hours to review significant bills before voting on them, but Glassman says that can end up being waived if a time-sensitive bill needs to get to the floor.
Given the lack of staying power, Bruce Oppenheimer, a professor of public policy at Vanderbilt University also argued some of the rules are simply symbolic of Democratic intent.
“It does sort of point a finger at the Executive branch and all the various, if not conflicts of interest or ethical violations, things which or probably were not tolerated in previous administrations,” he told TIME. “So I think it sets a standard and says if we’re willing to clean house, maybe you should be willing to clean house or put some onus on the Executive branch.”
But even if you can’t get everything you want accomplished, Glassman argues you have to start somewhere.
“Tightening ethics rules a little bit for 435 members of the House isn’t like changing the world,” he said. “But I think a lot of times the best political messaging on the Hill is this lead-by-example messaging.”