Glory be, after years and years and years and years of House Republicans poisoning legislation with procedural motions, which a handful of Democrats would never fail to participate in, the House of Representatives in the 117th Congress has new rules. Those new rules make that procedure, the Motion to Recommit, far less dangerous.
Now, the MTR could have been toothless all along, if Democratic leadership had been willing to be enforcers and do what Republicans do when they’re in the majority—not allow members to stray and abet Republican dirty tricks. The MTR is the minority’s last chance to amend legislation before final passage, and what Republicans always do in the minority is offer an amendment that they think will split Democrats and force them to take tough votes. Soon into the new 116th Congress, on key gun safety legislation, they did just that. They sullied a background checks bill by successfully amending it to require ICE be notified when undocumented immigrants try to buy guns. A thing that doesn’t happen, but that 26 Democrats voted for because that’s what they do all too frequently—eight times in the last two years. Well, they con’t have to worry about that now. The new rules the House has adopted don’t allow MTRs to amend legislation from the floor, they can only send the bill back to committee. That can theoretically kill bills, but it will be much easier to keep a majority together on clean legislation and it puts the MTR back into perspective, a simple procedural bill that no one really cares about.
So that’s a very good thing. But it isn’t the only very good thing the House did. It made sure that major initiatives from President-elect Joe Biden to save the nation’s economy and environment can’t be curtailed by deficit hawks. They’ve provided exemptions to the long-standing PAYGO provisions, the pay-as-you-go limitations on budget bills that requires any legislation that would increase the deficit to be offset by spending cuts elsewhere. The new rules don’t do away with PAYGO, but give the Budget Committee chair the authority to exempt any legislation categorized as health and economic response to the pandemic as well as legislation responding to climate change from the PAYGO restrictions. The door for further healthcare reform and for the Green New Deal is open a little wider now.
The majority did give Republicans one thing, which they’ll probably live to regret. They dropped a rule “barring members, officers and employees of the House from electronically disseminating, which includes sharing on social media, distorted or manipulated images, videos or audio files through official accounts.” They intended to make disseminating “deepfakes” an ethics violation. Republicans were actually opposed to that, which tells you as much about Republicans as you need to know. So instead of banning it, they asked the House Ethics Committee to study the issue and come up with recommendations. Which means we’re going to be seeing two years’ of deepfaked crap from Republicans.
There are a few more key reforms in the package passed Monday, including a prohibition of members or staff from outing or retaliating against whistleblowers, and they made sure that oversight committees will have subpoena authority over current and former presidents and vice presidents. And current and former White House personnel, too. The committees in charge of two ongoing investigations, the Oversight Committee’s investigation into the 2020 census count and the Coronavirus Crisis Subcommittee’s investigation into potential political interference in the pandemic response, can continue their work seamlessly, not having to hold organizational meetings before issuing subpoenas.
In a nod toward normalizing procedure, the House strengthened a rule from last Congress that requires most legislation to go through at least one committee process of hearings and markup—the editing process of legislation, adding amendments and altering provisions—before being allowed on the floor. It allows any member to make a point of order on the floor to send bills not meeting that requirement back to committee. It doesn’t apply to continuing resolutions to keep government operating after the fiscal year runs out, or to emergency appropriations, and it doesn’t take effect until April 1, to give committees more time and flexibility during the pandemic.
Speaking of which, it allows proxy voting in the House for the next couple of months. There are also new rules to expand diversity among hearing witnesses, to implement gender neutral language in all official language. It requires committees to address “inequities on the basis of race, color, ethnicity, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, age, or national origin” in their work.
It’s a smart, thoughtful package that’s been in the works for months. It by no means Senate-proofs the upcoming Biden administration, but will help on the big parts—the spending necessary to get the nation running again. Since all spending bills have to originate in the House, Democrats will have more leverage to get adequate spending bills through.
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