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A Weaker Speaker

The concessions Speaker McCarthy made to capture the gavel will significantly change the role of House leaders.

After four days and 15 ballots, the U.S. House of Representatives finally has a speaker. Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) was elected by a vote of the majority of his peers late last Friday night.

As his first act as speaker, on Monday Speaker McCarthy put forward a rules package that will govern the House’s work over the entire two years of the 118th Congress. That package was an integral part of the wheeling and dealing with the conservative wing of the House Republican Conference that was necessary to get Rep. McCarthy the votes needed to become speaker.

But that package also will significantly weaken his ability to govern the body. As Politico said, it means that, “for the first time in decades, rank-and-file members will have as much power as their leader,” the speaker of the House.

Make no mistake: that is exactly what the House Freedom Caucus, a group of about 50 conservative Republican House members who are skeptical of Speaker McCarthy’s leadership capabilities and his stance on several issues of importance to Freedom Caucus members, set out to do. But what does this rules package, and the side deals that went along with it, mean in practice? Let’s take a look.

The Most Significant Rules Change

Before examining what is contained in the rules package, it is important to explain that some of what Speaker McCarthy agreed to is in writing — and some of it is not. According to the Washington, D.C.-based newsletter Punchbowl, Speaker McCarthy reportedly agreed to “a secret three-page addendum” in addition to the formal, 54-page rules package that was negotiated with the full GOP caucus late last year and voted on by the House on Monday.

No one has produced a copy of this three-page document, but the pages are said to contain some of “the most controversial concessions” Rep. McCarthy made in order to become speaker. Those concessions include what is arguably the most impactful rules change: the provision that would give the House Freedom Caucus three of the nine seats on the powerful House Rules Committee.

The House Rules Committee is responsible for determining what legislation can, and cannot, come to the House floor for a vote. Three votes on this small but powerful committee will effectively provide the Freedom Caucus with veto power over any bills that House Republican leaders actually want to schedule for a vote.

The concession to the Freedom Caucus reverses precedent used for years by both parties.

As Politico explained, since the 1960s, the Rules Committee has been viewed by both parties as the “speaker’s committee.” Indeed, here is what a bipartisan list of speakers of the House have said about the committee:

  • Speaker John McCormack, Democrat who served as speaker from 1962-1971: “The Rules Committee is the political arm of the speaker in enabling the House to consider and enact legislation reported by the other committees of the House.”

  • Speaker Carl Albert, Democrat who served as speaker from 1971-1977: “The Rules Committee is the Speaker’s committee, not merely a traffic-cop or staff function.”

  • Speaker Jim Wright, Democrat who served as speaker from 1987-1989: “The Rules Committee is an agent of the leadership. It is what distinguishes us from the Senate, where the rules deliberately favor those who would delay.”

  • Speaker Newt Gingrich, Republican who served as speaker from 1995-1999: “Rules of the House are designed for a Speaker with a strong personality and an agenda.”

Former House Rules Chairman David Dreier, a Republican, also made it clear the Rules Committee existed, for years, as an extension of the House leadership. “The Rules Committee is the Speaker’s committee,” he said.

Over the last 20 years, members of the Rules Committee helped to ensure that Republican President George W. Bush’s Medicare reform bill, No Child Left Behind legislation, and tax reform measures made it to the floor intact when Republicans held Congress in the early 2000s. They helped see through the stimulus bill early on in the Obama administration when Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was speaker of the House. Additionally, as Politico noted, “For many years, leadership has used the Rules panel to ensure that third-rail proposals never see the light of day.”

Here again we see that both parties used the Rules Committee to their advantage. “democrats were spared from voting on Medicare for All or abolishing ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Republicans avoided votes on major cuts to Social Security or abolishing the IRS,” Politico said. “Why? To protect members of the majority party from having to take votes that could become major political liabilities, make them the targets of high-profile partisan pundits or spur primary challenges.”

For more than three generations, Rules Committee members have been handpicked by the leader because the speaker was certain of those lawmakers’ loyalty. Speaker McCarthy no longer has that assurance, which means, effectively, he will not control the House agenda.

What Else Is in the Rules Package?

The rules package also would:

  • Prohibit a so-called “clean” debt limit increase or suspension from being brought to the House floor. Under the terms of the agreement, only a debt limit bill that pairs an increase or suspension of the debt ceiling with significant spending decreases would be permitted. (According to Punchbowl this provision is in the secret addendum.)

  • Require that the House may only pass spending bills that cut discretionary spending, including for defense. (Against, according to Punchbowl this provision is in the secret addendum.)

  • End the proxy voting (voting remotely) that House members had enjoyed since the beginning of the COVID pandemic. This provision is in the formal 54-page package.

  • Require the House to vote on each government spending bill individually and prohibit House consideration of omnibus spending bills. As readers will recall, the House has for years reverted to omnibus spending packages to keep the federal government from shutting down because of lack of agreement on the annual spending legislation.

  • Prohibit leadership from bringing to the House floor any legislation whose text has not been public for at least 72 hours. While both GOP and Democratic House leaders have strived to meet this objective for decades, in practice, the longer legislative text is publicly available, the more time it gives members to try to negotiate last-minute deals to secure their votes. This provision is in the formal 54-page package.

  • Allowing more amendments to be considered on the floor and more widely distributing committee positions. (This provision also is in the secret addendum.)

As this blog has argued before, many of these provisions would make it extremely difficult to envision how the government can avert a default later this year when the current debt limit expires. (Again, under current projections, Treasury anticipates requiring Congress to lift or suspend the debt limit before the end of the third 2023.)

Under the provisions of the three-page agreement that is not considered part of the formal rules package, Speaker McCarthy is bound to only allow a vote on the issue if a debt limit increase is paired with significant spending cuts. President Joe Biden, on the other hand, has repeatedly signaled that he will not negotiate on averting default — a position that has been consistent among occupants of the White House from both parties for years. White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre reiterated that position on Sunday, stating, “Congress is going to need to raise the debt limit without conditions, and it’s just that simple.”

Keeping the federal government funded, and open, after September 30, when the current fiscal year ends, will also be a significant challenge. As noted above, it has been years since Congress did not need an omnibus funding bill or an extension beyond the end of the fiscal year to keep the federal government from shutting down at least partially. In fact, according to Pew Research Center, “[I]n the four decades since the current system for budgeting and spending tax dollars has been in effect, Congress has managed to pass all its required appropriations measures on time only four times: in fiscal 1977 (the first full fiscal year under the current system), 1989, 1995 and 1997.”

And If Speaker McCarthy Does Not Keep His Word?

Speaker McCarthy has told some reporters that his three-page agreement with the Freedom Caucus is not a binding contract, but a “gentleman’s agreement.”

Perhaps, but Speaker McCarthy also agreed to another change that enables his Republican skeptics to keep him in line: a single lawmaker — any of those who voted against Rep. McCarthy for speaker on the first 14 ballots or any other lawmaker who happens to disagree with him — the power to trigger a no-confidence vote in the speaker.

On CNN on Sunday, Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas), one of the lawmakers who initially opposed Rep. McCarthy’s bid for speaker, said, “We will use the tools of the House to enforce the terms of the agreement.”

In other words, last week’s marathon of votes to decide who would run the U.S. House of Representatives may not be the last of the 118th Congress.

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