Speaker Ryan meets the realities of governing

Thanks to an amendment involving protections for LGBT federal contractors, Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) saw one of the first two regular spending bills of his speakership defeated on the floor of the House just before the Memorial Day recess. In response, he announced this week that the rest of this year’s appropriations measures may be brought to the floor under so-called “restrictive rules” that limit the amendments that may be offered. Republicans promised that the process by which amendments were approved for consideration would still be “open and transparent.” Meanwhile, Democrats responded by accusing Ryan of changing “his tune about having an open process where democracy could flourish on the floor of the House.”

For observers of Congress, this conflict should feel familiar. In recent years, we have repeatedly seen new leadership that promises a commitment to “regular order,” only to abandon that commitment when unpalatable amendments put members in tricky political spots. Indeed, rules that restrict amendments have been increasingly used for debate since Republicans retook the House in 1994. Since Ryan ascended to the Speakership last fall, moreover, there have been signs that he would eventually have to confront this dilemma and choose between an open amending process and a smoothly operating chamber.

The appropriations process, however, is often thought to be the one exception to this trend. Since 1995, 77 percent of the regular appropriations bills considered in the House have come to the floor under some sort of open amending process. While Ryan’s decision to limit appropriations amendments is unusual, it is not unprecedented. In 2009, majority party Democrats, confronted with 100 proposed Republican amendments to the Commerce-Justice-Science spending bill and fearing multiple days of debate, put forth a restrictive rule that permitted only 33 specific amendments. This set the tone for the rest of year’s spending bills, all of which were considered under procedures that permitted only amendments approved in advance by the House Rules Committee.

This year, the most proximate motivation for limiting the amending process involves minority party “poison pill” amendments like Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney’s (D-NY) LGBT amendment to the recent Energy and Water spending bill. We should expect, then, that the largest effect of a shift to restrictive rules is likely to be that fewer Democratic amendments are permitted. The more interesting question is what the Republican leadership will do with amendments proposed by members of their own party. As I wrote last month, there may be reason to believe that the general increase in the use of restrictive rules has produced pent-up demand for amending opportunities among members of both parties, and in an election year, we might expect members to pursue these opportunities vigorously as they seek material for the fall’s campaigns. If House Republican leaders want to keep the appropriations process moving between now and the seven-week summer recess scheduled to begin on July 15, they may need to restrict their own members’ opportunities to offer amendments.

We got a preview of what this process might look like going forward when the House Rules Committee approved the terms of debate for the Legislative Branch spending bill this week. Republicans and Democrats proposed roughly equal numbers of amendments (19 and 18, respectively), and had approximately the same success rate at getting their amendments approved: 7 for Republicans and 6 for Democrats. For Republicans, this is slightly worse than their overall success rate for getting amendments approved by the Rules Committee since Ryan ascended to the Speaker’s chair (which stands at 49%), while for Democrats, it’s roughly the same as the overall figure (37%).

Importantly, on both sides, potentially divisive amendments got left behind. For Republicans, this included provisions involving firearms on the Capitol Grounds, restroom policies in the Capitol complex, and funding for the Office of the Former Speaker, while for Democrats, amendments on funding for the Benghazi committee and LGBT discrimination were blocked. Amendments from representatives in both parties addressing a dispute over immigration-related terminology used by the Library of Congress were also left on the cutting room floor.

Among the 11 Republican-sponsored amendments blocked by the Rules Committee, moreover, were 9 offered by members of the House Freedom Caucus, the conservative group that has continued to produce headaches for Ryan during the early months of his speakership. Given the amendment opportunities were among the group’s demands of a new speaker, Republican leaders may find themselves in hot water with the more conservative wing of their conference if the use of structured rules limits those legislators’ own chances to offer amendments. The House is already behind last year’s pace for approving spending bills; by this date in 2015, the chamber had approved five appropriations bills, as compared to just one this year. Given the upcoming election, this year’s calendar gives them little time to spare, and continued conflict over amendments may well help put Congress on the path to a now-familiar, year-end spending fight.