Source:Brookings Institution– Left to right: (not necessarily ideologically) House Republican Conference Chairman Cathy McMorris Rodgers, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, and House Majority Whip Steve Scalise.
“Editor’s Note: With Paul Ryan’s rise to become Speaker of the House, he faces a set of immediate challenges that will help determine his legacy. Over the coming weeks, Molly Reynolds will profile some of the major issues and legislation Speaker Ryan will be forced to address. She will also assess both his performance on those matters and the consequences of the choices both he and the House of Representatives make.
The House returns to Washington this week with several important tasks left to complete before the end of the year—including legislation that funds discretionary federal programs through next September. As it does so, it must confront Speaker Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) promise, made as part of his ascent to the chamber’s top job, to open up the legislative process to more input from rank-and-file members.
In the eyes of Ryan and his allies, the transportation bill that passed just before the House’s Veterans Day recess represented a successful down payment on this promise. Certainly, the numbers are encouraging: the House devoted roughly 23 hours over three days to debating the bill and amendments to it. Of the 301 amendments that members proposed to the measure by submitting them to the House Rules Committee, 126 were made in order for consideration of the floor by the Rules panel. The amendments approved for floor debate, moreover, were a mix of proposals offered by Republicans (47), Democrats (41), and bi-partisan teams of House members (38). Roughly 68 percent of those amendments ultimately offered on the floor were successful (74 of 108). At the same time, however, the House’s experience with amendments on the highway bill reveals several dynamics that may make it difficult for Ryan to keep his promise to the House Freedom Caucus—just as former Speaker John Boehner struggled to keep his pledge to “restore regular order” upon assuming the Speaker’s chair in 2010.
To understand why a consistent (relatively) open amendment process may be difficult for Ryan to sustain, it’s helpful to review why the House majority leadership, via the Rules Committee, often limits the amendments that can be offered to a bill on the floor of the House. From a policy perspective, restrictive rules make it easier for the majority party to enact policies preferred by a majority of its members. Importantly, however, restrictive rules can also achieve political goals by preventing difficult votes on amendments that divide the majority party. Take, for example, the controversy over an amendment to this year’s Interior appropriations bill involving the sidebar issue of the display of the Confederate flag on federal property. Because the bill was being considered under an open rule, Democrats were able to offer an amendment banning the display of the flag in national cemeteries. A group of southern Republicans responded with their own amendment relaxing that prohibition, and rather than face a vote that would reveal divisions within the GOP on the issue, the leadership pulled the bill from the floor.
Speaker Ryan’s internally-divided caucus—ranging from the more moderate Tuesday Group to the House Freedom Caucus with its conservative policy demands—seems ripe for generating these kinds of confrontations. On the highway bill, however, he was lucky. The biggest potential source of intra-party strife—the Export-Import Bank—had been largely neutralized as an axis of conflict the week prior when, thanks to a rarely-used discharge petition effort, the House had approved a reauthorization of the Bank. The discharge petition meant that the Senate’s version of the highway bill wasn’t the first consideration of the Bank on the floor of the House. A slim majority of House Republicans were on record as supporting it, essentially settling the underlying question of whether to reauthorize the Bank. Thus, the House leadership could get away with allowing only 10 of 25 proposed amendments about the Bank on the floor, all of which ultimately failed. It’s not difficult to imagine, however, that on future legislation, Ryan will not be so lucky and will have to confront demands from different parts of his caucus for the right to offer potentially divisive floor amendments.
Beyond the policy and political benefits of restrictive rules, they can also speed up the legislative process. Sometimes, this effort to move things along is explicit, such as when a rule waives a requirement that the House wait multiple days before considering a certain kind of measure, such as a compromise version of a bill produced by a House-Senate conference committee (which ordinarily must lie over for three days). In other cases, however, the House simply does not have—or want to have—the time to devote multiple days to considering amendments on a single bill. As political scientists Scott Adler and John Wilkerson have argued, congressional floor time is a scarce resource, and it is not always in the interest of the majority party leadership to expend that resource on considering 100+ amendments.
Last December, for example, the House had to pass a spending measure—the so-called ‘Cromnibus’—in order to avoid a partial government shutdown. Operating under tight deadline, the House Rules Committee decided to prohibit floor amendments on the measure. On one hand, doing so protected the bill from controversial amendments involving funding for implementing President Obama’s executive action on immigration that could have derailed the bill. At the same time, the closed rule also prevented some popular, bipartisan amendments—such as one involving NSA surveillance—from being considered. Closing off the amendment process on the Cromnibus served two important time management goals. First, it increased the chances the measure would clear in time to keep the government open. Second, it also ensured that members of Congress could follow their previously-set schedule and head home for the holidays on time. Otherwise, argued then-Speaker John Boehner, “if we don’t get finished today, we’re going to be here until Christmas.” Given that the House has been in session for fewer days in recent years and is scheduled to conduct business for only 111 days next year, this conflict between scheduling pressures and the demand for an open amendment process isn’t likely to get better in the near future. As former Representative Tom Davis (R-VA) put it in a recent interview, “if you open up the process…you’re going to be here till midnight, you’re going to be here for six days a week…You kind of have to let members understand what the tradeoffs are.”
A more open amending process is not the only reform Speaker Ryan has promised as part of his pledge to “make some changes, starting with how the House does business.” Others, such as the proposed reforms to the Steering Committee (the Republican intra-party panel responsible for making committee assignments) may be easier to implement and maintain. On the amendment front, however, we should be careful not to draw too many conclusions from his early success. More difficult challenges to his promises are almost certain to come.”
Warning! This piece may come off as inside Congress and the beltway wonky for all of you non-political junkies who have better things to do than follow Washington politics. Especially if you’re currently sober.
Generally speaking except when I’m trying to get somewhere, I love living just outside of Washington in Bethesda, Maryland. I’ve lived here my whole live and wouldn’t live somewhere else if someone paid me to leave. But this is probably why I’m such a political junky to the point where I can actually name all one-hundred U.S. Senators and most of the key U.S. Representatives. Even when a lot of Americans couldn’t name their own Senators and Representative even if you spotted them the last names. I love Congress and love following Congress especially the Senate, but the House is fascinating as well. Which is why I’m writing a piece on how to reform the House of Representatives.
One thing that Speaker Paul Ryan and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi can agree on for the remainder of this Congress and future Congress’s, is that the House is broken. Both parties have continually broken into it (pun intended) and have almost destroyed it. And a big part of why it’s so partisan has to do with how the majority treats the minority.
House Democrats, didn’t ask for much if any input from House Republicans when they were in charge. And continually wrote bills in the House Democratic Leadership room. Bypassing even their own committee chairman, let alone the Republican Leadership. So House Republican couldn’t even attempt to amend bills. As well as Moderate Democratic members who were actually interested in getting reelected and didn’t want to vote for something that could hurt them at home.
House Republicans, in the last two Congress’s under Speaker Boehner, have been a little better and have at least allowed for bills to come out of committee and have some amendment votes on bills. Not saying the House should become the Senate and adopt some super majority requirement for bills to get passed. But if I’m Speaker of the House, (that idea scares me more than you) I would want members of my caucus to weigh in on bills. Especially my committee chairman, so my members feels they have a real role in how the House works. But also if I need their votes on controversial legislation, they can say back home that they offered their amendments, but didn’t have the votes for them. And had to vote for the next best thing. Or they can say they made the bills better, because their amendments passed.
You also want the minority to not only be able to offer amendments to bill in committee and mark bills up in committee and not just send them to floor without even a hearing. Especially on the minority leadership to put pressure on them to offer ideas and alternatives. So you could say, “you don’t like what we’re doing, what would you do instead?” Put some responsibility on them to offer their own ideas and vision. Which would also give you opportunities to hit them back and not always be on defense when the House is debating bills on the floor. And when reelection season comes, you’ll have an opportunity to explain why their agenda isn’t good and why they shouldn’t be back in the majority.
Again not saying the House should become the Senate with unlimited debate short of 3-5 majority and all of that. With all the hot air that comes out of Senate filibusters. (Who needs summer in Washington when you have the Senate filibuster?) But in a couple of areas where the House should become like the Senate has to do with how committees operate and bills are written. All major legislation should go through committees. Where the chairman write bills along with their members and when the chairman and ranking members don’t agree on what the final bill should be they can both write their own relevant bill to whatever the issue that they’re considering is. And then let the rank in file decide who has the better bill. And offer their own amendments as well.
The House floor should work the same way. Where the Majority Leader brings up bills that have been passed out of committee and then when the Minority Leader and the minority caucus doesn’t like the majority bill and they haven’t reached a compromise on what the bill should be, the Minority Leader or their designee, should be able to offer a substitute to the majority bill. When the two-party leaders disagree. And again let the members decide who has the better bill. And not just do this in this Congress, but make these rule changes permanent so both parties whether they’re in the majority, or minority can have a stake in the game. And the ability to legislate and offer their own ideas.
Speaker Paul Ryan, who ideologically I don’t agree with him on much other than how government should help the poor and empower them to take control over their own lives, I believe truly believes in the notion that the U.S. House should be a battle place of ideas. A competition where both Democrats and Republicans can offer their own visions for the country and then let the country decide who has the better vision. And not just on the campaign trail, but on the House floor and in committee as well. Probably more than even Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi who rarely if ever allowed for amendments to bills except when they were bipartisan. A reform approach like this would make the House work better, because now they would be debating ideas and visions. Instead of who wants to destroy America first. And the country would better off as a result.
You can also see this post at FRS FreeState, on Blogger.
You can also see this post at FRS FreeState:https://frsfreestate.blogspot.com/2015/11/brookings-institution-fix-gov-molly-e.html on Blogger.