House Narrowly Approves New Rules Package

January 10, 2023 by Dan McCue
House Narrowly Approves New Rules Package
Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., talks to reporters as he walks to the speaker's ceremonial office at the Capitol in Washington, Monday, Jan. 9, 2023. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

WASHINGTON — House Republicans pushed through an overhaul of the rules for the new Congress on Monday, overcoming the concerns of some members of their own party regarding concessions Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., made last week to finally become speaker.

It took McCarthy 15 rounds of voting and an untold number of closed-door meetings and private negotiations to flip the majority of 20 members who opposed his being the speaker of the 118th Congress for most of last week.

In the end, McCarthy appeared to cave to a number of demands from Freedom Caucus members and other ultraconservatives in the chamber, including one that will allow a single lawmaker to call a snap vote to “vacate the chair” and oust him.

Because a motion to vacate would be “privileged,” it could be raised at any time, forcing a vote whether House leaders want it to or not.

And while the concessions will be critical to how the House operates over the next two years, most of them were not actually included in the rules package presented to members.

Instead, promises like the one giving the party’s hard right-wing seats on the powerful Rules Committee, which decides which bills can be considered on the House floor and what amendments may be offered, were set in stone by a handshake between McCarthy and his adversaries last week.

Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., the new chairman of the Rules Committee, said last night that the rules package “reflects Republican priorities and the priorities of the voters who elected us.”

But in the run-up to the vote, such assertions made some rank-and-file members queasy. 

Among them was Rep. Nancy Mace, R-S.C., who on Monday was still cringing over the elements of last week’s speaker vote.

In a letter to her constituents she wrote, “We can’t think of anything more ‘swampy’ than a member of Congress who tells the American people they’re holding up the speaker vote because they’re fighting the ‘swamp’ only to broker some back-room deal, hidden away from the American people.”

In essence, Mace sounded a lot like Democrats, particularly Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., the former chair of the Rules Committee, who said he wasn’t concerned about what was written into the new rules, but rather, “the back-room deals that Speaker McCarthy made with the Freedom Caucus in exchange for their votes.”

On Sunday, Mace told Margaret Brennan, moderator of CBS’ “Face the Nation,” that she was struggling with how she would vote on the package.

“I’m on the fence right now,” she said.

In the end, however, she voted for the rules package, calling it, in a statement on her website, “the most open, fair and fiscally conservative package we’ve seen in 30 years.”

“At the end of the day I’m always going to do what’s best for the Lowcountry, our state and nation; but I do want to make a serious point about the entire constitutional process,” she continued.

“We spent four days holding up the speaker vote to only make one change to the entire rules package (changing motion to vacate from five to one). And now there are rumors of backroom deals which may have been cut with a handful of members,” she said. “If it’s not okay for the far left to cut deals in secret then why is it okay for a few on the far right to cut deals in secret? And at what point do we say we’re going to be better than the last guy? 

“More transparency, more accountability and more policy would go a long way to restoring trust in our constitutional processes and restoring trust with the American people — and NO BACKROOM DEALS. Period,” Mace said.

In the end, only one Republican joined Democrats in the opposition to the rules package, Rep. Tony Gonzales, R-Texas, who appeared on the same edition of “Face the Nation” as Mace, and explained he was opposed to an agreement McCarthy made with the Freedom Caucus to significantly cut the nation’s defense budget.

“Which I think is a horrible idea, when you have aggressive Russia in Ukraine [and] you’ve got a growing threat of China in the Pacific,” he said.

“I’m going to visit Taiwan here in a couple of weeks,” Gonzales added. “How am I going to look our allies in the eye and say, ‘I need you to increase your defense budget,’ but yet America is going to decrease ours?”

With Gonzales joining the Democrats, the rules package passed 220-213.

Now that they’ve been adopted the new rules, among other things, will allow for the formation of new committees to examine what the Republicans call the “weaponization” of federal law enforcement agencies in politically charged investigations, the nation’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, and the United States’ competitiveness with China.

When it comes to finance, the new rules include a number of provisions intended to limit spending — one would actually block consideration of any measure that would increase mandatory spending on things like social entitlement programs — while also making it easier to cut taxes.

For instance, the new rules direct the Congressional Budget Office to calculate the macroeconomic effect of tax reductions, an approach that would, theoretically at least, reduce the estimated impact of tax cuts on the federal deficit.

The package also brings back the so-called Holman rule — a 146-year-old provision named for then Appropriations Committee Chairman William Holman, D-Ind., which allows lawmakers to use spending bills to defund specific programs and fire federal officials or reduce their pay.

Faced with a looming confrontation over raising the federal debt limit in the coming months, Republicans eliminated the so-called Gephardt rule — named for former Rep. and Majority Leader Dick Gephardt — which has allowed the House to avoid a vote on the politically charged issue and automatically increase the federal government’s borrowing power. 

Despite the concerns raised by Mace and others over the back-room promises that led to McCarthy’s speakership, the new rules do take some strides toward greater transparency.

For instance, they allow lawmakers at least 72 hours to review legislation before it goes to the floor for a House vote, responding to a chief complaint of members during the last Congress, who have been angered by voluminous, “omnibus” bills offered up at the last minute by Democrats. 

“Bills appear by dark of night; bills that nobody’s read that are thousands of pages long,” said Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the majority leader. “Today starts that process — of fixing what’s broken in Washington so that Washington can finally start working for the people of this country who are struggling.”

Along the same lines, the new rules strive to restrict measures to a single topic, making it easier to eliminate provisions in a bill not considered germane to the main focus. 

The rules approved Monday also reverse pandemic-era changes to how the House operates, ending proxy voting and remote committee hearings.

Given the Republicans’ slim majority, that means the party leaders will now have to keep lawmakers in Washington for longer periods to be certain they have the votes to advance their priorities.

Perhaps most troubling to Democrats are several changes the new rules make to how the House Ethics Committee is composed and how it will operate going forward.

One rule, for instance, imposes term limits for board members, a move that would have the effect of removing all but one Democrat from the board as it considers whether to launch an inquiry into Republican congressmen over their conduct related to the Jan. 6, 2021, siege on the U.S. Capitol. 

Republicans contend those concerns are overblown, and that the Democrats will be able to replace those board members who will have to step down because of term limits.

Another rule requires the committee to approve the hiring of investigators within the first 30 days of a new Congress.

Critics of the rule say it could cause the committee to be understaffed. The Republicans respond by saying that they believe it will force the panel to staff up quickly. 

Among those critical of the whole thing was Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., who said in a written statement on Monday that “after showing America how not to pick a speaker of the House, Kevin McCarthy and his team are now showing America how not to design the Rules of the House.

“The GOP’s Rules package has nothing to do with making policy progress or building efficiency into the process and everything to do with catering to the same extremist faction which just humiliated Kevin McCarthy before the entire world, badly undermining the power of the speaker’s office for years to come,” Raskin said.

“The package proposes a new select subcommittee on the so-called ‘Weaponization of the Federal Government,’ and grants this dubious new subcommittee immense investigatory powers over the federal government, including the authority to investigate the Department of Justice and its ‘ongoing criminal investigations,’” he continued.

“This anti-law enforcement proposal means that the far-right faction of the House GOP — which likens the Jan. 6 assault on Congress to a ‘tourist visit’ and considers people convicted of assaulting federal officers and seditious conspiracy to be ‘political prisoners’ — will have a running vehicle for undercutting the Jan. 6 criminal investigation,” he said. 

“House Republicans seek to reinstate the ‘Holman Rule,’ which allows lawmakers to insert provisions into appropriations bills to fire individual federal employees or target them with giant pay cuts,” he continued.

“Revival of the Holman Rule would enable right-wing extremists in the House to target federal employees, many of whom — thanks to the landmark laws enacted under Democratic leadership in the last Congress — will be working on the most pressing issues of our time, from tackling climate change to ensuring the affordability of prescription drugs.

“These are efforts to weaponize Congress against the U.S. government, the federal workforce and the American people,” Raskin said.

“The House Republicans’ Rules package also guts the Office of Congressional Ethics with arbitrary term limits for members and aggressive new staffing requirements, both of which will undercut the OCE’s ability to fulfill its mission of combating corruption, ensuring transparency, and protecting the integrity of Congress. 

“Finally, House Republicans have commandeered the rules package to attempt to jam through 12 contentious measures outside of regular order, including bills to further attack women’s reproductive freedoms and criminalize abortion, empower polluters, and protect tax cheats,” he said.

Raskin concluded by saying the only thing “this dangerous” rules package accomplishes is driving “Congress further into the clutches of the most extremist agents of chaos and division in our House.”

Dan can be reached at dan@thewellnews.com and at https://twitter.com/DanMcCue

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