Speaker Paul D. Ryan’s decision to crack down on amendments to appropriations bills isn’t just a reversal of his previous assurances of an open amendment process — it’s a break with two decades of House tradition.
Between fiscal 1996 and fiscal 2015, in only one year were so-called structured rules used for most of the regular spending bills, according to a March 2015 report from the Congressional Research Service.
Outside of fiscal 2010, each year since fiscal 1996 has seen no more than one or two structured rules for spending bills, according to the CRS report. That means that most of the time, any member could offer any amendment on the floor to a spending bill.
Republicans were in control of the House for 16 of those 20 years.
Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, is abandoning the open amendment process on fiscal 2017 appropriations bills after the House’s recent Energy-Water spending bill spiraled out of control in late May, leading to a crushing floor defeat of the measure. Many Republicans voted against the bill after an amendment was adopted barring discrimination against LGBT workers in federal contracts.
Republican leaders say this year they will now opt in favor of structured rules, which may limit the amendments that can be considered by the chamber or may impose other requirements.
The two spending bills on deck for House floor consideration — the Legislative Branch and Defense measures — will both be considered under tighter rules, though the Legislative Branch measure is typically the one appropriations bill debated that way every year.
Most years since fiscal 1996, the bulk of appropriations bills to receive House floor action were given some sort of open rule. Those rules sometimes included requirements that amendments be pre-filed in the Congressional Record. But most of them allowed members to offer any amendment on the floor that was in order under the standing rules of the House.
That means a hard turn toward structured rules this year would be mostly unprecedented in the last two decades, though the appropriations process overall has wandered far from regular order.
Nearly every year over that period, Congress has relied on a continuing resolution to start the new fiscal year Oct. 1 when the prior year’s funding expires. Most of those years, lawmakers also had to wrap many of the appropriations bills together into large spending packages.
The last time Congress completed its appropriations work on time was in 1996, prior to the start of fiscal 1997, when Republicans held a narrow majority in the House.
The last spending cycle when most bills received structured rules was fiscal 2010, when Democrats were in control and 11 of the 12 bills received such a rule. That appropriations process began with an open rule for the Commerce-Justice-Science measure — but after 127 amendments were filed for that bill, the Democratic majority decided there wouldn’t be sufficient time to get through the entire process without a tighter leash.
House Democrats had complained of dilatory tactics by Republicans in previous years — for example, slowing down appropriations work by offering dozens of amendments affecting spending amounts as small as $50,000, according to a senior Democratic aide.
The aide said Democrats’ move towards structured rules for the fiscal 2010 bills was an attempt to impose reasonable time limits on amendment debate.
Democrats have said Ryan’s decision this week, on the other hand, is aimed at restricting the content of amendments to be offered — particularly, the Democratic amendment dealing with protections for LGBT contract workers that prompted 130 Republicans to oppose the energy and water bill in May.
“When they were in the minority, and we were in the majority, they practiced regularly what we call the offering of ‘gotcha’ amendments — amendments that they didn’t really care whether they’d pass, but they were politically difficult amendments,” said Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, the Democratic whip. “Now the first time they face such a challenge, they hypocritically say, ‘Well, maybe we’re not going to pursue that policy because the Democrats are not taking this process seriously.’”
Republicans said that the move is necessary to prevent Democrats from tagging appropriations bills with divisive amendments like the provision for LGBT protections.
“The Democrats’ game here was to blow up the process,” said Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, a senior Republican on the Appropriations and Rules committees. “You start adopting the kind of tactics you need to protect yourself.”
Republicans discussed the change towards stricter rules at a GOP conference meeting Wednesday.
The Rules panel can filter out contentious amendments using a structured rule — a common practice for the Legislative Branch measure, but not for other spending bills. But doing so risks upsetting members on both sides who may feel left out of the appropriations process if they can’t offer amendments.
Many members leaving the Republican conference meeting Wednesday signaled acceptance of the change, given the Energy-Water fiasco in May, despite pledges from leaders early in the year over an open amendment process.
“We’re going to, in the House, have an open rules system and votes are going to be all over the place, because the rules are going to be open,” Ryan said at a news conference in January. “We’re not going to predetermine the outcome of everything. I don’t know where the appropriation bills ultimately go on the floor, because we’re going to let members have their amendments, have the votes.”