House adopts rules package for 117th Congress

Republicans are enraged over weakening of the motion to recommit

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., dismissed Republican arguments by noting that adoption of the rules package is always a partisan vote.  (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., dismissed Republican arguments by noting that adoption of the rules package is always a partisan vote. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Posted January 4, 2021 at 5:46pm

The House on Monday adopted its rules package for the 117th Congress in a 217-206, party-line vote after dispensing with several Republican attempts to derail its consideration.

The package would weaken a procedural tool of the minority, provide key exemptions to a budget rule requiring the cost of legislation to be offset and strengthen congressional oversight provisions, among other changes.

In crafting the package, Democratic leaders found compromise positions to competing ideas from party factions. That allowed the package to get through their new narrow majority without any Democratic defections.

[House rules package offers compromise on members’ requests]

The majority party in the House always crafts the rules package to its liking, prompting partisan sparring about various advantages and disadvantages it allegedly provides to each party.

But tensions over the rules were especially high Monday as Republicans accused Democrats of silencing their voices with significant changes that undercut their ability to offer changes to bills through motions to recommit, or MTRs.

“There are very few times I’ve ever been this embarrassed of this body — the hypocrisy of what I’m about to see, the hypocrisy of what you think you will defend,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said in floor remarks. “Everybody in this body knows it is wrong, but you feel you can grip power a little harder.”

The rules package eliminates the minority’s ability to offer MTRs with instructions. The impact of the change is that Republicans will not be able to use the MTR to alter bills on the floor, which they successfully did eight times last Congress.

Instead, under the change the minority would only be able to use the motion to send a bill back to committee. That makes the MTR more of a procedural move designed to kill a bill, which is easier for Democrats to oppose.

‘Out of embarrassment’

Rules ranking member Tom Cole, R-Okla., said the only reason Democrats were changing the rules is “out of embarrassment” that eight MTRs proposed by Republicans in the last Congress were adopted.

In the eight years before that, Republicans held the majority and were unified in voting against Democrats’ MTRs as procedural maneuvers even when they offered substantive changes. They feel Democrats shouldn’t change the rules just because their caucus can’t show the same cohesion.

“This is a right that has been guaranteed to the minority for well over a century,” Cole said. “With today’s changes, the majority is seeking to silence views they are afraid of with no regard for this institution or the American people’s trust in our constitutional responsibility to govern, and govern well.”

Democrats, meanwhile, were widely supportive of altering the MTR, although they had different ideas about how to go about it.

Most progressive Democrats had wanted to repeal the MTR altogether, while more moderate members proposed raising the threshold to two-thirds so that any last-minute changes adopted had to be broadly supported. Others had floated limitations along the lines of what was ultimately included in the package.

Rules Chairman Jim McGovern, D-Mass., had been concerned about the institutional impacts and told CQ Roll Call last year that he wanted to hold a hearing on proposals for changing the MTR before deciding on one. Ultimately that hearing never happened, although the panel had earlier heard testimony on the MTR during a hearing open to any member requests on rule changes.

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer was one of the leading Democrats pushing to overhaul the MTR. On Monday, the Maryland Democrat delivered a lengthy floor speech detailing the motion’s history as procedure copied from the British Parliament that was intended to be a “friendly amendment” adding noncontroversial provisions that were unintentionally left out of bills.

That intention has been lost in recent years as both parties have used MTRs as a way to trap their opponents into taking votes on controversial policies that could be used as political attacks in campaigns.

“No party is free of their gotcha actions,” Hoyer said, acknowledging that Democrats used the MTR that way, just as Republicans have.

Republicans think Democrats will regret changing the MTR if they lose the majority, but Hoyer at least disagrees.

“We may be in the minority at some point in time,” he said. “Don’t give it back to us.”

Delay tactics

Republicans, highlighting some other procedural tools they can deploy despite the defanging of the MTR, kicked off the floor debate on the rules package by asking for the House to take an extra day to consider it.

“I really think that my good friends in the majority need more time to present a fair rules package, so I move to postpone consideration of H Res 8 until January 5,” Cole said.

Hoyer moved to table Cole’s motion, and the House took a roll call vote that lasted an hour and 20 minutes. The motion to table, killing Cole’s effort to postpone, was agreed to 214-204.

Republicans then offered a motion that would have added language on election oversight and administration that acknowledges “the primary authority to conduct elections for federal office is reserved to the states and that the Congress’s role is secondary” but establishes federal oversight standards for mail-in ballots.

Hoyer also moved to table that motion, which was agreed to, 214-196.

“It’s disappointing House Democrats have completely dismissed the first opportunity to work together in the new Congress to instill voter confidence and protect the integrity of our election process,” said House Administration ranking member Rodney Davis of Illinois, the Republican who offered the original motion.

After more than two hours of GOP delay tactics that Democrats rejected, the floor debate began.

‘Compromise’

McGovern lauded the package as a “compromise,” at least among Democrats. The progressive and moderate factions of the party both touted their imprints on the package.

Progressives were thrilled about a provision that effectively provides exemptions to a long-standing pay-as-you-go, or PAYGO, provision that requires legislation that would increase the deficit to be offset.

While the rules package does not directly provide any PAYGO exemptions, it would provide the Budget Committee chairperson the authority to declare legislation providing economic and heath responses to the pandemic, as well as measures designed to combat climate change, as having no cost. That means those measures would not be found in violation of PAYGO, mitigating the need to waive the rule.

Moderates, especially in the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition, think they won out in the PAYGO debate since the provision remained intact and the exemptions limited to ones they could get behind.

Coronavirus-related legislation in 2020 was mostly passed as emergency appropriations, which is already exempt from PAYGO. And on climate, the Blue Dogs acknowledge the cost of inaction can be higher than legislation that Congress proposes, which the Congressional Budget Office does not account for in its official scores.

While Democrats were pleased with the intraparty compromises struck in the rules package, Republicans said the majority should’ve taken a more bipartisan approach to the rules, especially after the seats they lost to Republicans in the 2020 election.

“You lost seats based upon what you did on this floor,” McCarthy said. “Instead of changing course, you now denied people the voice.”

In one capitulation to Republicans, Democrats on Sunday evening revised the package to drop a provision barring members, officers and employees of the House from electronically disseminating, which includes sharing on social media, distorted or manipulated images, videos or audio files through official accounts.

The rule sought to make sharing of so-called “deepfakes” an ethics violation, but it drew concern from members about how it would be applied — even with a safe harbor provision to let violators off the hook if they’ve made a reasonable effort to determine authenticity.

The updated package instead asks the House Ethics Committee to study the issue and report back by year’s end on what, if any, changes should be made to the code of conduct.

Overall, Republicans used the debate over the rules to suggest that Democrats were not interested in bipartisan policymaking. But Hoyer disagreed, saying House rules are never crafted in a bipartisan manner and are not indicative of cooperation that may or may not follow.

“The people watching this debate may not have the knowledge that all of us have that almost invariably — almost invariably, this is a partisan vote,” he said. “Republicans will vote against our rule[s]. We’ll vote against their rule[s]. Invariably, we’ll find some problem with it that we can rationalize this vote on.”