House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., shakes hands with House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., after his re-election to the post at the opening of the 115th Congress on Tuesday at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. Photo by Kevin Dietsch/UPI | License Photo
WASHINGTON, Jan. 4 (UPI) -- The U.S. House of Representatives approved its new rules package on Tuesday evening, which includes a provision aimed at discouraging the taking of video or pictures from the chamber floor -- and a bill to make employees of the Department of Veterans Affairs more accountable.
The 115th U.S. Congress opened Tuesday with the passage of the package by a vote of 234-193, largely split along party lines. However, it did not include a late attempt by House Republicans to gut an independent ethics panel -- which exists to review allegations of misconduct by House lawmakers and their staffs.
The attempt by some House Republicans to move the Office of Congressional Ethics under the jurisdiction of the House Ethics Committee -- effectively letting Congress police itself -- added a bit of controversy to what's typically a routine vote.
House Republicans who pushed for the change backed off when opposition from both sides of the aisle and President-elect Donald Trump indicated it didn't have enough support to survive. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said the effort showed a "toxic dysfunction" in the GOP-controlled House.
While the proposed ethics change was not included in the package, the new rules do provide one aimed at discouraging members of Congress from protesting on the House floor and publicizing it with pictures or video.
It's already against the rules of Congress to take pictures or video from the floor of the lower chamber, though that stipulation is regularly broken during State of the Union addresses and other big events held there.
The new rules include language against "disorderly or disruptive conduct," "intentionally obstructing or impeding the passage of others in the chamber" and attempts to "disrupt or disturb proceedings of the House."
Republicans voted to include fines with the new rules -- $500 for the first violation and $2,500 thereafter -- as a method of discouraging future protests like one in June that saw Democrats demand votes on gun control bills while posting pictures and streaming live video from the House to social media.
Democrats, including Georgia Rep. John Lewis, took over the chamber during the demonstration and blocked aisles while pushing for new gun control measures after the deadly mass shooting at Orlando's Pulse nightclub. The session was ended, and C-SPAN feeds stopped, but Democrats continued to protest and streamed it online with their cellphones.
"If there is an attempt to silence us for commonsense gun violence prevention ... we will stand our ground," Pelosi said Tuesday via Twitter.
The VA bill, if approved by the Senate and signed by the president, require admonishments and reprimands for department employees to stay in their files permanently -- a move to make those employees more accountable. Another version of the bill was approved by the House last month, but not the Senate.
The rules also included a change to allow federal lands to be disposed of while being considered budget-neutral, a move opponents say could make it easier for the government to give away federal land.
Proponents argue, however, that taking the federal government out of the picture will help the budget and offer economic benefits for the many communities located near federally-guarded land.
"In many cases, federal lands create a significant burden for the surrounding communities," Molly Block, spokeswoman for the House Natural Resources Committee, said. "Allowing communities to actually manage and use these lands will generate not only state and local income tax, but also federal income tax revenues."
Most House Democrats opposed the rules package, with Pelosi calling it "shameful."