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Keystone Process Tells Tale of Two Houses | Procedural Politics

Boehner signs the Keystone bill. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Do you remember Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California promising last fall to return the new Congress to the regular order? The initial test came on the first major bill in the well of both houses, the Keystone XL Pipeline Act. Whereas the Senate produced a veritable gusher of amendments with all hands at the wellhead, the House reverted to a narrowly-constricted flow tube controlled by a few valve masters.  

Identical House and Senate pipeline bills were introduced on the opening day of the new Congress by two North Dakota Republicans, Rep. Kevin Cramer and Sen. John Hoeven. Both measures were placed on a fast track to the floor the first week of the session. But that’s where the similarities ended. McConnell promised an open amendment process, and that’s the way it began. Unlike his predecessor, he turned floor control over to the energy committee’s chairman, Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. What followed was a free-for-all with 274 amendments filed – enough to keep the Senate working until Easter. After a few days of debate on amendments, the process was winnowed by cloture votes and a unanimous consent agreement.  

Senators offered a disparate range of amendments on everything from climate change and domestic content requirements to endangered species and private property rights. A total of 45 amendments were considered over 10 days, with only seven adopted, 29 rejected and nine tabled. The bill passed Jan. 29 with nine Democrats on board.  

Meantime, the House Rules Committee reported a closed amendment rule on its Keystone bill, allowing just one hour of debate and one minority motion to recommit –all done in one afternoon. The Rules Committee reported another closed rule when the Senate Keystone bill came over to the House. The House passed the measure as amended by the Senate, clearing it for the president’s anticipated veto.  

The Senate process on Keystone brings to mind a similar exercise in 1995, shortly after Republicans took control of Congress. House Republicans promised a more open floor amendment process than their predecessors. The first test came on the Unfunded Mandate Reform Act to relieve federal regulatory burdens on state and local governments. The House Government Reform and Oversight Committee, under the chairmanship of Rep. Bill Clinger of Pennsylvania, dutifully reported the bill the second week of the session.  

Democrats were more than happy to test the new majority’s commitment to an open amendment process. Under the open rule reported by the Rules Committee, a total of 169 amendments were filed in the Congressional Record. Of those, 56 amendments were actually considered, with 19 adopted and 37 rejected. The process consumed eight legislative days (and a good amount of Chairman Clinger’s stamina and patience).  

The Senate also had a full-fledged amendment process on its counterpart mandates bill. The two sides then reconciled their differences in conference. The final bill passed both houses by overwhelming bipartisan majorities and was signed into law by President Bill Clinton.  

House Republicans were able to maintain a fairly open amendment regime in that 104th Congress during the Contract with America’s 100-day legislative march. In the first three months, the Rules Committee produced 18 open amendment rules – 69 percent of all rules up to that point. By the end of that Congress they had slipped to 58 percent open rules. Nevertheless, that remains the high water mark over the last 20 years, with open rules declining steadily ever since, down to just eight percent in the last Congress.  

So far in this Congress the Rules Committee has reported 15 special rules, of which 11 have been completely closed to amendments. There have been no open amendment rules and only four of the 15 bills covered have even been reported by a committee. Republican leaders have publicly prided themselves on “hitting the ground running” this year. There will come a time, though, when they will run aground for leaving most members behind.  

Don Wolfensberger is a resident scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.