With the Republican Party seemingly headed for a contested convention in July, an obscure committee of 112 delegates could effectively determine the outcome before House Speaker Paul D. Ryan even gavels the proceedings to order.
The 2016 Convention Rules Committee could decide, for instance, who can be considered for the nomination, how long a delegate must remain committed to his or her candidate and what rules govern debate on the floor.
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The committee could, in fact, send to the floor a set of rules and procedures that are entirely new, throwing out decades worth of precedents in the process.
Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, said this could turn into a protracted debate.
“In Tampa [in 2012], I think the Rules Committee only lasted one day, but I would imagine this year, it might take a few more days if we’re in an open convention,” said Priebus, who will choose the chairman of the panel.
Aware of the committee’s sway, GOP presidential campaigns are plotting strategy and working to organize their state delegations to be able to get as many members as possible on the rules panel.
But in a year when there is already talk of finding ways to deny the nomination to front-runner Donald Trump, some Republicans worry about the fallout from changing the rules in the middle of the game.
“We’ve got to be very careful and whoever makes that decision, whoever is involved in that rules committee, whoever is involved has to be very careful that they communicate what they’re doing openly so that this does not look like … it does not create the appearance of anything untoward,” said Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga.
The rules committee is comprised of a man and a woman from each of the 56 delegations from states, territories and the District of Columbia. California has just as many members as D.C.
The panel will start with a template from the RNC’s standing committee on rules, but nothing from past years is binding on this year — which is where things could get interesting.
For instance, in 2012, supporters of Mitt Romney pushed through changes establishing that candidates effectively needed to win the support of eight state delegations to be placed in nomination.
This year, that would make it likely that only two candidates — Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz — would even be eligible for the first ballot.
But there’s a conflict.
The 2012 rules — which again are not binding on 2016 at all — also seem to require that delegates bound by their states to particular candidates must vote for those candidates.
This year, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio has made clear that he does not intend to release his bound delegates, even though he is no longer actively seeking the presidency. The move could mean that Rubio delegates would be required to be recorded as voting for him, or that their votes would not count at all.
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Whatever the 112 rules committee members recommend must be adopted on the floor. There could be real chaos if a quarter of the members decide they disagree and issue a minority report. Both would proposals would then be up for debate from the full convention.
Morton Blackwell, a conservative activist in Northern Virginia backing Cruz, is a rather rare rules committee stalwart of both the Republican National Committee’s rules panel and those at conventions. He first attended the meetings in 1972, becoming a member of the standing committee on rules at the RNC on 1988.
“The people who were involved in these rules committees were taking part in a long term dialogue,” Blackwell said of the old system. “Because the rules couldn’t be changed between conventions … they tended to have little if any relationship with who was going to be nominated.”
But Blackwell said that has certainly changed, citing the 2012 effort by the Romney campaign to change the rules so that candidates must have an eight-state majority in order to be placed for nomination. That led to dissension at the convention, when delegates found they couldn’t cast ballots for the candidates they were bound to support.
Blackwell said he tried to undo that change at a January meeting. Having failed, he said doing so in Cleveland would amount to changing the rules of the game.
Another hot spot could arise over rules that require delegates to be recorded as having voted for whomever they may be bound to by state party regulations. That creates an obvious contradiction with the rule limiting who can be placed in nomination and was the source of discussion at an RNC background meeting with influential Republicans last week, according to a person in the room.
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That’s the kind of question the rules panel might need to try to resolve after receiving recommendations from the RNC’s rules panel.
At the same RNC briefing last week, it was made clear that chaos could arise on the floor if the rules committee itself cannot unify. In the event that 25 percent of the panel dissents, there could be a minority report, bringing dueling rules packages to the floor of the arena.
With the number of potential thorns, transparency could prove paramount, Perdue said. “We haven’t talked about it much,” the Georgia Republican said. “I mean, people don’t realize that there are some things that will be decided in the early part of the convention for that convention.”
Former RNC counsel Ben Ginsberg has been stressing in a variety of television interviews that there are no rules yet for 2016.
“They must be passed by each convention for that convention,” Ginsberg said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “There will be a lot of Curly Hauglands out there who have great ideas of their own on what can be done.”
Haugland is an unbound delegate from North Dakota who has espoused the view that any candidate who has been awarded a single delegate should have their name in the pool for nomination.
“The media has created the perception that the voters choose the nomination. That’s the conflict here,” Haugland, who has served on the RNC’s rules committee, told CNBC.