One proposed change to House rules illustrates just how hard Paul Ryan’s job is

Despite promises to “return to regular order,” the House Republican leadership has spent much of the spring struggling to build sufficient support within its caucus for a budget resolution that adheres to the aggregate discretionary spending levels agreed to  as part of last October’s budget deal.  A group of conservative members, led by the House Freedom Caucus, have pledged to oppose any budget resolution that honors the October numbers unless it is accompanied by other spending cuts or rules changes, including several proposed by former Freedom Caucus member Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.) explored yesterday at a House Rules Committee hearing.  While it seems increasingly likely that Republican leaders in both chambers will forgo a budget resolution and attempt to move on to appropriations bills, McClintock’s proposal provides an excellent window to the challenges that Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) continues to face managing the divisions within the House Republican conference.

One of McClintock’s proposed changes to the House Rules is meant to address what he and his allies see as one of the major drivers of unsustainable levels of federal spending: spending on mandatory programs, like Medicaid and welfare.  Cutting them, however, is not simply a matter of passing spending bills with lower amounts than the previous year.  Individuals who qualify for these programs are guaranteed their benefits (hence their commonly-used moniker, “entitlement programs”), so reducing the amount spent on them requires making changes to the existing laws that outline the underlying eligibility criteria.  Given the challenges of building a legislative coalition in the contemporary Congress, “must pass” spending bills would seem like a logical legislative vehicle for these sorts of reforms (though one surely to be met with vigorous opposition from the Democrats who champion these programs).  Thanks to House Rule XXI, however, appropriations bills are prohibited from “changing existing law.”  That’s where McClintock’s proposal comes in.  First, change House Rule XXI to allow appropriations bills to include “changes in direct spending programs that reduce expenditures.” Then, write a spending bill for the Departments of Labor and Health and Human Services that makes the kinds of changes to mandatory spending programs that conservative Republicans favor.  Finally, hope that the “must pass” nature of the bill gets it across the finish line.

If McClintock and his allies were successful at both adopting their proposed rule change AND leveraging it to pass cuts to mandatory spending programs, they’d achieve something that’s been high on their list of policy goals since Republicans retook the House in 2010.  But doing so would come at the cost of one of their central process-oriented objectives.  House conservatives have pushed for committees to play a greater role in drafting major legislation, but changing Rule XXI would undermine those efforts by giving the House Appropriations Committee more power at the expense of the other panels that authorize programs. 

How would the Appropriations Committee end up with more power?  First, it’s worth noting that, at present, the House frequently disregards the very rule that McClintock and his allies are trying to change.  Like most other substantive bills in the House, appropriations measures generally come to the floor under what’s known as a “special rule,” which sets out the parameters for consideration of the measure, including how long debate will last and what kinds of amendments will be permitted.  Written by the House Rules Committee, special rules require the support of a simple majority on the floor to pass.  Often, they also waive other, standing House rules that might affect a measure’s consideration—including Rule XXI.  According to the Congressional Research Service (see Table 2 here), between 1995 and 2014, 183 appropriations measures considered on the floor were covered by a special rule.  Of these, 103 waived Rule XXI for the entirety of the underlying spending bill (see Table 4); another 78 waived the rule for all but a specified set of provisions. 

While these waivers of Rule XXI have become commonplace, obtaining one requires the support of the Rules Committee.  In addition, under a practice known as the “Armey Protocol,” the chair of the authorizing committee with jurisdiction over the proposed non-spending change is usually given the opportunity to object to it as well.  Under a revised version of Rule XXI that explicitly allows for changes to mandatory programs in appropriations bills, however, the default procedure would shift.  Appropriators would no longer need to ask for explicit permission in the form of a waiver to make legislative changes.

More generally, under a new version of Rule XXI where the Appropriations Committee is directly tasked with changing entitlements, mandatory and discretionary programs would be in much more direct competition for resources than they are at present.  While entitlements could come out on top consistently, it is also possible that budget hawks would find it easier to sell mandatory cuts when they are more directly pitted against popular discretionary programs.  At the very least, authorizers of mandatory programs would find themselves embroiled in new funding fights.

In addition, research suggests that committee members’ choices about how to spend the precious hours in their legislative days are influenced by the payoffs they expect from that effort.  If authorizing committees know that any work they do could be undone or altered by appropriators and folded into “must pass” bills, however, they have much less of an incentive to invest their own time and resources into writing legislation.  Put differently, it is difficult to empower committees when those same committees don’t believe that their work will bear legislative fruit.

Changes to congressional rules often solve political problems as much as they do institutional ones, but here, Ryan finds himself battling competing political difficulties.  If Republicans change the budget rules to (potentially) gain the support of enough conservatives to adopt a budget resolution now, they will open themselves up to criticism for weakening authorizing committees later.  Even if the House Republican leadership can find a way out of this particular challenge, similar challenges may arise in the future—both before and after the 2016 elections.