On January 6, the U.S. House of Representatives adopted a rules change that gives the Judiciary Committee authority to review any bill proposing or modifying a new or existing criminal law or penalty. The rules change was backed by a diverse coalition of organizations, including TCP, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Heritage Action for America and the general counsel of Koch Industries.
In a letter to House Speaker John Boehner sent earlier in the week, the coalition said the rules governing the flow of legislation in earlier Congresses often prevented the committee from considering a bill that criminalized new conduct without modifying existing criminal penalties.
“The result is that new criminal offenses are being created without being considered by the lawmakers on the Judiciary Committee who have valuable expertise in drafting and resolving potential conflicts with existing criminal law,” the groups wrote. The new House rules gives the committee the authority to seek jurisdiction – called a sequential referral – over any measure adopted by another committee that criminalizes conduct.
“Allowing Judiciary Committee participation in any bills containing criminal offenses or criminal penalties will produce clearer, more specific criminal laws. It should also help protect against overcriminalization and foster a measured, prioritized approach to criminal lawmaking,” the coalition letter said.
Overcriminalization often occurs when legislators use criminal law (rather than civil law) to ensure compliance with regulatory objectives.