WASHINGTON – Democrats controlling the House moved aggressively Monday to tighten their hold over the chamber despite their narrow margin, ramming through a rules package that limits the potential for embarrassing votes and caters to the party’s progressive wing by weakening deficit-neutrality requirements for legislation such as a “Green New Deal.”
The party-line vote also extended last year's proxy voting rules, which permit lawmakers to vote remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic. Democrats have freely used the new system, which maximized their voting participation while Republican leaders have urged their members to vote in person.
The rules changes come as Democrats hold a bare majority in the House of fewer than a half-dozen seats, significantly smaller than over the past two years. Also, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., is beginning what promises to be her fourth and final term as leader of the chamber. In Democratic control, House is a key asset for President-elect Joe Biden's agenda, regardless of whether his party wins the Senate after Tuesday's pair of runoff elections in Georgia.
Pelosi announced later Monday that remote voting would be permitted through Feb. 18.
Understanding the bundle of changes requires a dive into the arcane world of House rules and parliamentary maneuvering. The Democratic-imposed rules continue a years-long trend of eroding the powers of the House minority through revisions enacted every two years.
Of particular concern now to Republicans are two changes: A plan to weaken GOP opportunities for end-stage amendments to bills, and a move to weaken “pay-as-you-go” rules that make it more difficult to pass legislation bloating the federal deficit. There are also new rules requiring members of Congress to bear financial responsibility for discrimination lawsuits, requiring “gender-inclusive language,” and establishing a new Select Committee on Economic Disparity and Fairness in Growth.
Republicans said the hodge-podge of changes is designed to muzzle their party. “It is all designed to take away the voice of 48 percent of this House chamber,” said Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La.
Republicans particularly protested a move to gut their ability to offer a so-called motion to recommit. That's a longstanding right of the minority party to, in essence, offer a final amendment to a bill. Such motions often provide political grist for the minority, which designs them to force difficult votes — or “political gotcha games,” as Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern, D-Mass., put it.
Now the main use of such motions would be to try to kill legislation. They would not be subject to debate, making it easier for the Democratic majority to simply defeat them.
“This is a right that has been guaranteed to the minority for well over a century,” said Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole, top Republican on the powerful Rules Committee. “It is simply shocking that Democrats are so afraid of Republican ideas that they feel the need to rig the system against us. They don’t want the House to work its will. They only want the Speaker’s will."
The rules package also delivers a victory of sorts to progressives seeking to erode so-called pay-as-you-go rules that require legislation not add to the budget deficit. Such rules were imposed when Democrats first took back the chamber 14 years ago with a caucus that had significantly greater numbers of moderate lawmakers and members from rural and southern districts.
Now, with the Democratic conference tilting more solidly to the left, pay-go rules would be relaxed for legislation to deal with COVID-19 and climate change. That helped Pelosi cement support for winning the Speaker's gavel from younger progressives seen as potential defectors.
Freshman Rep. Cori Bush, D-Mo., for instance, praised the erosion of pay-go rules, which she called “a long-standing roadblock to the passage of critical progressive priorities.” Liberals also praised the creation of the special panel on economic fairness, which joins other panels on the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, and the modernization of Congress.
Other changes were less controversial, like making it a violation of House ethics rules to reveal the names of whistleblowers or initiating a review of the use of misleading “deepfake” videos by lawmakers with an eye to making it an ethics violation to traffic in their use.