In the modern Congress, it’s almost unheard of for the House to vote on 100-plus amendments to a bill, as the chamber will do Thursday and Friday during debate on a reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration.
Rank-and-file members had little explanation for the sudden procedural openness, although some speculated it was related to the bipartisan nature of the FAA measure and the availability of floor time given the slim election-year legislative agenda.
Some expressed hope that the structured rule on the FAA bill, which made 116 amendments in order for floor consideration, was a sign that more amendments would be accepted on future bills, but no one had any insight as to whether that would actually be the case.
A spokeswoman for Speaker Paul D. Ryan deferred to the Rules Committee on whether the structured rule would be employed on more legislation moving forward.
Rules Chairman Pete Sessions of Texas deferred to his spokeswoman when a reporter tried to stop and ask him a question as he headed into a votes series Wednesday. His spokeswoman did not return a request for comment.
“I won’t hold my breath. Anyone who thinks House Republicans are turning over a new leaf to a more open process clearly hasn’t been paying attention,” Rules ranking member Jim McGovern of Massachusetts said in a statement. “Every day in this Republican Congress we have seen them control debate with an iron fist and shut out both Democrats and rank-and-file Republicans. I would only expect more of the same.”
Of the 140 bills that have been brought to the floor under a rule (some move under suspension of the rules, requiring two-thirds support for passage), none have been debated under an open rule that would allow unlimited amendments.
More than half, a total of 79, have been moved under a closed rule allowing no amendments, while the other 61 have been subject to a structured rule that allows limited, predetermined amendments.
In the first session of the 115th Congress last year, House Republicans broke the record for the most closed rules during a single session, with a total of 58 adopted. The previous record of 48 was set in the first session of the 114th Congress.
If just five more closed rules are adopted this year, which seems likely, the 115th Congress will set a record for the most number of closed rules adopted during a full Congress. The current record of 83 was set in the 113th Congress.
Ryan: We’ve Done ‘A Phenomenal Job’ Restoring Regular Order
House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Bill Shuster said the FAA amendments made in order “is a good indication that leadership wants to have a somewhat open process,” but he wasn’t sure if it would be repeated on other bills the House takes up this year.
Major bills under the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s jurisdiction have tended to yield more amendments than some from other panels. Shuster cited a 2015 highway funding bill as an example, recalling at least 50 amendments to that bill.
“I’ve always had to deal with amendments on my bills, so we’ll just keep on doing it,” the Pennsylvania Republican said.
House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer said Shuster is one of the most bipartisan chairmen and suggested his effort to work with Democrats on the FAA bill — after his effort to privatize air traffic control in an earlier version of the bill failed — might be a reason why an agreement on amendments was reached.
“Or it could be simply that we don’t have much work to do. [Republicans] want to be here for the balance of the two days” remaining in the week, the Maryland Democrat said. “And this gives them an opportunity to do something, or at least appear to be doing something. That’s the cynic in me.”
Others also doubted the FAA amendments were a sign of return to so-called regular order, saying there were still procedural steps skipped on the bill.
The Transportation and Infrastructure Committee never marked up the version of the bill that is headed to the floor. The bipartisan compromise was reached after Shuster failed to gather enough support for an earlier version that would have spun off government-run air traffic control operations into a private corporation.
“How’s this a return to regular order? This didn’t even go through committee,” panel member Thomas Massie said. “We didn’t have a markup on this, and the manager’s amendment has changed three times in 24 hours.”
The Kentucky Republican said substantive amendments that have a shot at passage are rarely made in order. For example, an amendment he authored with Transportation and Infrastructure ranking member Peter A. DeFazio of Oregon to remove the cap on the Passenger Facility Charge was not among the 116 approved for a floor vote.
“There are three kinds of amendments they [allow] in the Rules Committee — Republican amendments that will fail, Democratic amendments that will fail and any amendment on a bipartisan basis that will do nothing,” he said.
Tennessee Rep. Phil Roe, a member of the GOP whip team, said he thinks an agreement on amendments was needed to shore up enough votes to pass the bill.
“This is a House arithmetic [problem] — 218,” he said.
Transportation and Infrastructure Committee member Scott Perry said he wasn’t sure why leadership allowed amendments to this bill while moving most others under closed rules. The Pennsylvania Republican wasn’t optimistic that other bills would be provided a similar open process but said if leadership wants to build a track record, this bill provides them a first step to do so.
Other conservatives who have often complained about limited opportunities for amendments and floor debate saw the allowance of amendments to the FAA measure as an improvement compared to other bills the House has passed recently.
“It’s better than zero that were made in order on the 2,232-page bill that spent $1.3 trillion that we had 15 hours to look at and one hour to debate,” Ohio GOP Rep. Jim Jordan said, referring to the omnibus spending bill.
Rep. Daniel Webster, a Florida Republican who serves on the Transportation panel, said he doesn’t see the FAA bill as a sign of a return to regular order.
“It has some bipartisan support, and it’s safe,” Webster said of why amendments were allowed.
Much of the panel’s work, like regular reauthorizations of surface transportation programs, water projects and the FAA, ends up open to amendment because of the bipartisan nature in which those bills are typically crafted, he said.
Webster ran for speaker in 2015 on a campaign platform of restoring regular order in the House and allowing open amendment debate on bills. Ryan ended up adopting a similar platform, but several members, including Webster, feel that the Wisconsin Republican has not followed through on his pledge.
With another GOP leadership shuffle set for September, the topic will certainly come up again. Webster said he wants to see a candidate who will truly champion a return to regular order.
Asked if he would run again, Webster joked, “If somebody listens.”
“I haven’t really said I am,” he added. “I’m not pursuing anything right now.”