Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s (R-Calif.) decision to promote conservative arsonists to the House Rules Committee has given some of his leading GOP detractors tremendous new powers to dictate the party’s legislative agenda — and could upset Republican leaders cause headaches across the board.
The Rules Committee, a relatively obscure body, is also among the most powerful, getting the final crack on most laws before they are sent in. That is, it determines not only the content of these proposals, but also the guidelines under which they are debated.
In the past, speakers from both parties have staffed the committee with close allies to ensure maximum control over how, what and when bills are introduced. But this year is different.
In the face of a revolt by conservatives in his own conference, McCarthy promised them new seats on the Rules Committee – one of the many concessions he made to win their support for his speakership. And he made good on that offer on Monday when he defeated three Conservatives – Reps. Chip Roy (R-Texas), Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) and Ralph Norman (RS.C.) – appointed to the committee.
Roy and Massie, in particular, were frequently at odds with their own leadership on budget and spending issues. And all three lawmakers have been highly critical of the top-down approach to legislation taken by leaders from both parties in recent years. They vow to support only the rules that leave bills open to greater debate and additional amendments.
Their number is significant. In the 13-member rules body, the three agitators can join forces to prevent most laws from leaving the committee. It’s a dynamic that could pose a huge stumbling block for GOP leaders hoping to use their new majority to speed up any must-pass bills, and it’s raising concerns among lawmakers from both parties that the trio will be on the House agenda will dictate for the next two years.
“It’s not an inside baseball thing. These three people now have essentially veto power over any bill that goes before the House,” Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) said Monday night in an interview with MSNBC.
Rep. Jim McGovern (Mass.), the top Democrat on the panel, was even more curt: “Yikes,” he wrote on Twitter in response to the appointments.
McCarthy added a number of allies to the powerful body, including Chairman Tom Cole (R-Okla.) and Guy Reschenthaler (R-Pa.), who was installed as vice chairman of the new Congress. But with nine Republicans and four Democrats sitting on the committee, three GOP defectors could prevent a bill from moving by a seven-to-six vote.
The Conservatives clinched an early victory this week: GOP leaders vowed to have their say on legislation for the first time in seven years under a modified open rule that will allow members to table amendments on the floor.
However, it remains unclear how aggressive these three conservatives will be with their grown muscles on the control panel.
Immediately following the November midterm elections, when it was clear a red wave had not materialised, Massie hinted that he would take advantage of the GOP’s slim majority, telling reporters, “I can decide whether a law passes or Not.”
However, since being appointed to the rules body, Massie has softened such threats and says he has no intention of using his newfound power in this way.
“It’s not my goal to be on the rules committee and stop everything I don’t like,” the Kentucky Republican told The Dispatch. “Even if you look at it numerically, the composition of the committee, ‘Oh my god, three people could stop this.’ That’s not my goal. I don’t think doing that every week would be productive or sustainable.”
“It doesn’t always work out with the canary,” he recalled telling McCarthy and Cole during a discussion about his potential joining the panel, describing the triumvirate as canaries in a coal mine.
“But we are, and I think we just have to do our best to represent the will of the conference while sticking to the rules we’ve set for ourselves,” he added.
The new list of rules follows weeks of haggling between McCarthy and GOP critics as he sought the speaker’s gavel after the midterms.
McCarthy agreed to add three hard-line Conservatives to the rules committee as part of a handshake deal he had with his holdouts. Fourteen defectors eventually turned to support the California Republican after that deal went through.
McCarthy now pays, keeps his promise and goes one step further by appointing two of his conservative opponents to the Rules Committee. Norman and Roy – members of the Conservative House Freedom Caucus – voted against McCarthy for the majority of the Speaker spectacle and only went to his column after their demands were secured. Roy played a central role in the discussions behind closed doors.
The Texas Republican told Axios Monday that he “did not ask for the appointment,” adding, “but you can’t push for change [and] do not saddle up when asked to do so.”
While the picks deliver on McCarthy’s key promise, they could exacerbate the math headache he’s likely to face in future polls.
Republicans can afford to lose just four votes in passing legislation when Democrats are united in opposition, meaning the GOP conference must stay tight-knit to ensure victories on the ground. That number will drop to three in the next few weeks as Rep. Greg Steube (R-Fla.) recovers from an injury sustained in a fall in Florida.
For his part, McCarthy is confident he can keep his conference united and the House in order, even if he has ceded some of the powers to keep the Chamber in check.
“We figured out how to work together,” McCarthy told reporters shortly after winning the gavel.
If history is any gauge, he’s got his work cut out.
In 2011, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) took control of the House of Representatives with a similar pledge to end year-end summary bills and create a more inclusive lower chamber. Just weeks after taking the gavel, he opened the floor for a free-running budget debate to appease the Tea Party newbies who had given the Republicans their new majority. Legislators from both parties happily complied, proposing more than 580 changes and extending the ground fight to five chaotic days, which Boehner would later equate with “the first jump off the 50-foot springboard.”
The resulting struggle with the Obama administration saw some victories for the Republicans, who secured cost-cutting concessions from the Democratic White House. But Boehner failed to achieve regular order in the spending debate and was eventually forced to approve a series of year-end omnibus packages during his tenure.
Boehner’s successor, Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), also took the gavel, promising the House would be “more open,” “more considered,” and “more participatory.”
Within two years, the GOP Rules Committee, under Ryan’s leadership, would break the record for the most closed rules in a single session of Congress.
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