Editor’s Note: With Paul Ryan’s rise to become Speaker of the House, he faces a set of immediate challenges that will help determine his legacy. Over the coming weeks, Molly Reynolds will profile some of the major issues and legislation Speaker Ryan will be forced to address. She will also assess both his performance on those matters and the consequences of the choices both he and the House of Representatives make.
The House returns to Washington this week with several important tasks left to complete before the end of the year—including legislation that funds discretionary federal programs through next September. As it does so, it must confront Speaker Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) promise, made as part of his ascent to the chamber’s top job, to open up the legislative process to more input from rank-and-file members.
In the eyes of Ryan and his allies, the transportation bill that passed just before the House’s Veterans Day recess represented a successful down payment on this promise. Certainly, the numbers are encouraging: the House devoted roughly 23 hours over three days to debating the bill and amendments to it. Of the 301 amendments that members proposed to the measure by submitting them to the House Rules Committee, 126 were made in order for consideration of the floor by the Rules panel. The amendments approved for floor debate, moreover, were a mix of proposals offered by Republicans (47), Democrats (41), and bi-partisan teams of House members (38). Roughly 68 percent of those amendments ultimately offered on the floor were successful (74 of 108). At the same time, however, the House’s experience with amendments on the highway bill reveals several dynamics that may make it difficult for Ryan to keep his promise to the House Freedom Caucus—just as former Speaker John Boehner struggled to keep his pledge to “restore regular order” upon assuming the Speaker’s chair in 2010.
To understand why a consistent (relatively) open amendment process may be difficult for Ryan to sustain, it’s helpful to review why the House majority leadership, via the Rules Committee, often limits the amendments that can be offered to a bill on the floor of the House. From a policy perspective, restrictive rules make it easier for the majority party to enact policies preferred by a majority of its members. Importantly, however, restrictive rules can also achieve political goals by preventing difficult votes on amendments that divide the majority party. Take, for example, the controversy over an amendment to this year’s Interior appropriations bill involving the sidebar issue of the display of the Confederate flag on federal property. Because the bill was being considered under an open rule, Democrats were able to offer an amendment banning the display of the flag in national cemeteries. A group of southern Republicans responded with their own amendment relaxing that prohibition, and rather than face a vote that would reveal divisions within the GOP on the issue, the leadership pulled the bill from the floor.
Speaker Ryan’s internally-divided caucus—ranging from the more moderate Tuesday Group to the House Freedom Caucus with its conservative policy demands—seems ripe for generating these kinds of confrontations. On the highway bill, however, he was lucky. The biggest potential source of intra-party strife—the Export-Import Bank—had been largely neutralized as an axis of conflict the week prior when, thanks to a rarely-used discharge petition effort, the House had approved a reauthorization of the Bank. The discharge petition meant that the Senate’s version of the highway bill wasn’t the first consideration of the Bank on the floor of the House. A slim majority of House Republicans were on record as supporting it, essentially settling the underlying question of whether to reauthorize the Bank. Thus, the House leadership could get away with allowing only 10 of 25 proposed amendments about the Bank on the floor, all of which ultimately failed. It’s not difficult to imagine, however, that on future legislation, Ryan will not be so lucky and will have to confront demands from different parts of his caucus for the right to offer potentially divisive floor amendments.
Beyond the policy and political benefits of restrictive rules, they can also speed up the legislative process. Sometimes, this effort to move things along is explicit, such as when a rule waives a requirement that the House wait multiple days before considering a certain kind of measure, such as a compromise version of a bill produced by a House-Senate conference committee (which ordinarily must lie over for three days). In other cases, however, the House simply does not have—or want to have—the time to devote multiple days to considering amendments on a single bill. As political scientists Scott Adler and John Wilkerson have argued, congressional floor time is a scarce resource, and it is not always in the interest of the majority party leadership to expend that resource on considering 100+ amendments.
Last December, for example, the House had to pass a spending measure—the so-called ‘Cromnibus’—in order to avoid a partial government shutdown. Operating under tight deadline, the House Rules Committee decided to prohibit floor amendments on the measure. On one hand, doing so protected the bill from controversial amendments involving funding for implementing President Obama’s executive action on immigration that could have derailed the bill. At the same time, the closed rule also prevented some popular, bipartisan amendments—such as one involving NSA surveillance—from being considered. Closing off the amendment process on the Cromnibus served two important time management goals. First, it increased the chances the measure would clear in time to keep the government open. Second, it also ensured that members of Congress could follow their previously-set schedule and head home for the holidays on time. Otherwise, argued then-Speaker John Boehner, “if we don’t get finished today, we’re going to be here until Christmas.” Given that the House has been in session for fewer days in recent years and is scheduled to conduct business for only 111 days next year, this conflict between scheduling pressures and the demand for an open amendment process isn’t likely to get better in the near future. As former Representative Tom Davis (R-VA) put it in a recent interview, “if you open up the process…you’re going to be here till midnight, you’re going to be here for six days a week…You kind of have to let members understand what the tradeoffs are.”
A more open amending process is not the only reform Speaker Ryan has promised as part of his pledge to “make some changes, starting with how the House does business.” Others, such as the proposed reforms to the Steering Committee (the Republican intra-party panel responsible for making committee assignments) may be easier to implement and maintain. On the amendment front, however, we should be careful not to draw too many conclusions from his early success. More difficult challenges to his promises are almost certain to come.