Who is to blame when a free-for-all amendment process causes a $37.4 billion spending bill to collapse on the House floor?
The inclination may be to point the finger at Speaker Paul D. Ryan, who assumed the House's top job in October promising to open up more bills to amendments from both sides of the aisle.
The Wisconsin Republican blamed Democrats for Thursday’s rare failure of an appropriations measure.
He said they "sabotaged" the process by pushing for adoption of an LGBT anti-discrimination amendment and then voted against the larger energy and water bill, which went down 112-305 with 175 Democrats and 130 Republicans voting no.
But most of the blame rests with Republicans.
The GOP conference effectively ousted former Speaker John A. Boehner for his top-down leadership style when he controlled what amendments and bills would be allowed in floor votes. And they asked for someone like Ryan to replace him and allow members to have greater say in the fate of legislation. Ryan did what his fellow Republicans asked and allowed committees to send bills to the floor and opened many of them to amendments.
The speaker has said over and over again that leadership would not predetermine the outcome of legislation, and largely followed that mantra except when it comes to a budget resolution Republicans have refused to bring up for a vote because they know it will fail.
The inability to pass the energy and water bill, Ryan said, shows that an open legislative process means more unpredictability and can lead to bills failing.
“That’s what happened here today," he said. "It’s unfortunate because this is a very good bill.”
Republicans found it unfortunate, too.
"The energy and water bill failing is a tremendous setback for the Congress. It takes dysfunction to a whole new level, and dysfunction prevailed," said Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa., a member of the Appropriations Committee. "I thought this might happen sooner or later but not this soon."
Dent, though, didn't blame Ryan, who he said is "doing everything he can" to try to manage the GOP's divided factions. "This is more a problem of the membership at this point than it is of the leadership."
"Paul’s just fulfilling the promises that he made," agreed Rep. Matt Salmon, R-Ariz. "You know, democracy has always been a tough thing. I can’t fault him. He’s doing what he said he was going to do, what we asked him to do."
Still, there are Republicans who see some downsides.
"It's pretty messy," Rep. Kenny Marchant, R-Texas, said, explaining that members end up having to choose between voting for a bill they generally support or against the whole measure because of amendments they oppose.
"You throw that stuff in, it makes it so political back home it’s often not worth the vote," Marchant said. He suggested that the Rules Committee may need to do some more restraining of amendments, noting that is the purpose of the speaker-appointed panel.
Some of the Republicans who voted against the bill cited the LGBT anti-discrimination measure, while others were concerned about the total spending levels.
Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions, R-Texas, suggested he would favor more restraint.
"I am not on the side of trying to do extraneous poison pills," he said. "I’m for the vast majority of our conference getting these appropriations bill or other things done without trying to throw something extraneous in the middle of them."
Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, D-N.Y., who offered the LGBT amendment only to vote against the full spending bill, said the Republican response to the failure of the energy and water bill will be a test of Ryan’s commitment to regular order.
“The solution to an open process that’s messy is not a rigged process that’s tidy,” he said. “The solution to a messy open process is to have more votes, is to have more discussion, is to let the House work its will. I’m not afraid of that.”
Ryan said after the House returns for a week-long recess, the Republican conference will have one of its "family discussions" about how best to move forward to maintain a workable appropriations process.
He stressed the failure of the bill — which supports the Energy Department, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Interior Department's Bureau of Reclamation and several commissions — would not prevent the House from continuing to move spending bills.
"We are not slowing down here," Ryan said.
A contentious Confederate flag amendment was the primary reason House Republicans stopped bringing up appropriations bills last year, but that issue was laid to rest when it agreed last week to an amendment effectively lowering the "stars and bars" at federal cemeteries.
The problem with opening bills up to any amendments is that many proposals that members offer stray from the heart of the bill they're trying to change.
With appropriations bills, it is easy to add language saying the provision would block funds to do 'X' or redirect funds to do 'Y.' That means a lot of amendments where members try to force the opposite party to go on record on hot-button issues.
For instance, Republicans said Democrats who forced a second vote on Maloney's LGBT amendment, won and then voted against the overall bill.
"Democrats were not looking to advance an issue but to sabotage the appropriations process," Ryan said.
Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., said his colleagues should have seen through that political ploy. "The Maloney amendment had nothing to do with rights or discrimination (and) everything to do with stopping the other things in the appropriations bill," he said.
Maloney said Democrats were sincere in pushing through his amendment guaranteeing that federal contractors abide by an executive order prohibiting job discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.
What they didn't like, he said, were subsequent amendments targeting the LGBT community, including one supporting North Carolina's transgender bathroom law.
Some Republicans acknowledged Democrats didn't do anything they wouldn't have done.
"Democrats committed an act of politics. Welcome to Congress, that's what happens," said Dent, the Pennsylvania Republican. "At the end of the day we're the majority party and we can't rely on the Democrats to move the ball down the field every day. We have to do it ourselves."
Dent predicted the failure of the energy and water bill would lead to "tremendous pressure" to restrict amendments on appropriations bills, but noted that members themselves called for a more open process.
"You can't have it both ways," he said. "If you want an open process that means you have an obligation to be supportive of the final product."
Bridget Bowman and Rema Rahman contributed to this report. Contact McPherson at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter @lindsemcpherson. Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.