House Democrats eye changes to minority’s main legislative tool

Rules Committee likely to hold hearing on proposals to change the motion to recommit

Florida Rep. Stephanie Murphy has proposed raising the threshold for a motion to recommit from a simple majority to a two-thirds one. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Florida Rep. Stephanie Murphy has proposed raising the threshold for a motion to recommit from a simple majority to a two-thirds one. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted November 30, 2020 at 9:00am

House Democrats across the political spectrum want the rules package for the 117th Congress to change the power of one of the minority’s only legislative weapons.

The motion to recommit, or MTR, is a vote afforded to the minority on most bills that allows it to offer last-minute changes.

[‘We are either a team or we’re not’ — Democrats struggle with Republican messaging votes]

The MTR has been used in the past as a procedural vote to kill legislation by sending it back to committee, but in recent years it has become a substantive vote that would actually amend the bill if adopted. In either scenario, it is mostly used as a political messaging vote in which the minority tries to trap the majority into going on the record on controversial policies.

“It’s turned into a joke,” Michigan Democrat Dan Kildee said. “It’s something that both sides use for one purpose and one purpose only, and that is to play gotcha for the elections.”

House Republicans in the 116th Congress have won eight MTR votes, mostly with amendments that moderate Democrats were afraid to vote against.

For example, Republicans successfully used an MTR in February 2019 to add language to Democrats’ priority gun safety bill expanding background checks to require the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency to be notified if an undocumented immigrant tried to buy a gun. 

Democrats have floated a variety of ideas for changing the MTR, such as returning it to a procedural vote that does not amend legislation on the floor, raising the threshold for adopting the motion or getting rid of it altogether.

‘Centuries of precedent’

Republicans, unsurprisingly, oppose the changing the MTR. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy accused Democrats of trying to “overturn centuries of precedent just to protect their own political futures.”

“These rumored changes are a disgrace and would forever tarnish the institution in which we serve,” the California Republican said in a statement. 

But even institutionalist House Democrats such as Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer believe the MTR could use some retooling. While leadership has not made any decisions on how to proceed, Hoyer personally prefers to keep the MTR in an altered form over eliminating it.

“The Republicans, of course, treat the MTR as a procedural issue, so any arguments that they would make that this is depriving them of rights, that’s baloney,” the Maryland Democrat told CQ Roll Call. “They tell their members, ‘You vote against it, no matter what the substance is … because it’s just a procedural motion to undermine the bill.’”

House Rules Chairman Jim McGovern said he’d like to hold a hearing before agreeing to any changes.

“I believe in minority rights,” the Massachusetts Democrat said. “I also get the point that it has been weaponized in a way that it’s not a constructive legislative tool. But whether there’s a way to deal with that, I don’t know."

The MTR is just one area of the rules Democrats want to change. Other changes under discussion include the return of earmarks and eliminating or relaxing pay-as-you-go rules that require the cost of legislation to be offset by spending cuts or revenue increases. McGovern is hoping to have a draft package ready to present to the Democratic Caucus in a few weeks.

‘A no-brainer’

Florida Democrat Stephanie Murphy is proposing raising the threshold for adopting an MTR from a simple majority to two-thirds, arguing that it would retain the minority’s right to offer a last-minute amendment while requiring it to be broadly supported to be adopted. 

“The reality is that MTRs have been used by the minority party to campaign on the House floor,” Murphy said. “But what the effect of it is is that they’re changing well thought out, well-written legislation with a last-minute amendment. And if you are going to have no more than 10 minutes to consider something, it should be overwhelmingly bipartisan and a no-brainer to pass. Otherwise, you are just passing into law or amending bills in a haphazard way.”

Murphy co-chairs the moderate Blue Dog Coalition, whose Democratic members vote most frequently in support of Republican MTRs.

McCarthy took aim at Murphy in his statement, saying, “It would be nice if Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi and her so-called moderate members like Stephanie Murphy spent as much time working to deliver COVID relief as they do devising ways to rig the process to prevent blowback against their party’s radical policies.”

Not all moderate Democrats have a problem with the MTR, however. 

“l love MTRs. Great opportunity to vote against some of the crazy Democrats’ stuff,” Oregon Rep. Kurt Schrader told CQ Roll Call. 

Schrader, a Blue Dog, said he prefers the simple-majority threshold for adopting the MTR but is open to Murphy’s proposal. 

“But getting rid of them would be bad,” he said. “What is fascinating to me, you got all of these younger, newer members that don’t realize [their] time is going to come when they’re in the minority and they’ll wish to hell they had an MTR to go.”

‘I don’t think it serves any purpose’

Progressive Democrats want to go further and get rid of the MTR altogether. 

“I don’t think it serves any purpose,” California Rep. Ro Khanna said, calling the MTR a “gamesman” procedure.

Khanna, a leader of the Progressive Caucus, said the group prefers to eliminate the MTR but is open to compromise on other proposals like Murphy’s. 

Kildee said he’s open to any of the proposed tweaks that prevent situations in which members have five minutes to make a decision on potentially substantive policy changes to a bill. 

“Either it’s got to be a procedural vote and members then can make a judgement as to whether they want to stop the legislation from moving forward, which is the way the MTR was originally constructed,” he said, “or, if it’s going to be a substantive amendment, there’s no way we can justify trying to determine the effect of language with five minutes’ notice before we vote on it. That’s just not responsible.”

It’s difficult to predict whether the MTR will be changed in the final rules package that gets voted on the opening day of the 117th Congress, especially since Democrats will have a thin margin to get the package through without Republican support. While a lot of Democrats are interested in it, there are those who will resist any change, Kildee said.

“I understand the traditions and all that, but the tradition was that it was a procedural vote, and it’s evolved into something different,” Kildee said. “We’re not honoring any of those old traditions by protecting what it has become.”