A little House parliamentary history: The motion to recommit goes back at least to the British Parliament and has existed in some form since the 1st Congress. A motion to recommit with instructions, as the great rules guru Don Wolfensberger has pointed out, goes back at least to 1891 and Speaker Thomas Reed (R-Maine). But that MTR was granted to a Member who was friendly to a bill, to offer a chance to clean up errors. A motion to recommit with instructions as a device for the minority to offer an alternative goes back to 1909 and the revolt led by progressive Republicans against powerful conservative Republican Speaker Joe Cannon (Ill.) to grant some rights to those opposed to bills. An MTR with instructions as a device for the minority party per se to offer an alternative goes back to 1932.
There have been many variations and refinements in the rules regarding MTRs since, including several in the 1980s and 1990s. When House Republicans took the majority in 1995 for the first time in 40 years, after several contentious years in which majority Democrats often adopted special rules restricting amendments and MTRs, their leading reformer, Rep. David Dreier, crafted a rule to make an MTR with instructions virtually automatic. As the California Republican proclaimed at the time, an era where the minority party was hampered at being able to offer its alternative vision for policy would be replaced by one where that right would be guaranteed.
Why do I bring up this history? Because the MTR is now back in the news. Twice in recent days, House Republicans have found a way to draft MTRs with instructions that have deep-sixed important bills, the first on the Home Star Energy Retrofit Act, the cash for caulkers; the second, last week, on the America COMPETES Act, a jobs bill focused on increasing science, research and training investment.
These MTRs have been in the news not because they represented the minority partys alternative vision for dealing with energy policy or science and tech and jobs policy but because they were designed to kill bills by offering red herring gotcha amendments, including one in the energy bill to require contractors to ensure that no employee had been convicted of child molestation and one in the jobs/tech bill to require that any federal employee who had viewed or downloaded pornography be fired. Both were attempts to force Democrats to withdraw their bills and more importantly, to set up 30-second attack ads against vulnerable Members for supporting child molesters and pornography.