House majority rules spark minority fights
© Greg Nash

To paraphrase Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “The rule’s the thing in which to catch the conscience of the King.” In the House of Representatives a rule, also known as a special order or order of business resolution, is a resolution from the majority party’s leadership-controlled Rules Committee that sets the conditions for debate and amendment on legislation.

Rules are lightning rods for controversy because the majority often uses them to short-circuit the regular order and limit the minority’s participation in the process. The minority, in turn, uses debate on a rule to pummel the majority for abusing its powers and to prick-away at the conscience of the majority king’s caucus --sometimes even succeeding in peeling-off some of the king’s minions.

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Those sparks were arcing during debate on the rule for the 2,200 page omnibus appropriations bill Thursday, March 22. The bill to fund the government for fiscal year 2018 was six months late, and Congress was up against a midnight Friday deadline to avert a government shutdown. The bipartisan-bicameral agreement with the White House was not finalized until Wednesday, and the language was not available on the Rules Committee’s website until around 8 p.m.  

When the Rules Committee met at 10:15 p.m., Chairman Pete SessionsPeter Anderson SessionsTexas New Members 2019 Congress is going to make marijuana moves McCarthy defeats Jordan for minority leader in 159-to-43 vote MORE (R-Texas) lamented he did not even have a single hard copy of the bill to comment on. After hearing testimony from 11 members, the committee voted 8-3 to report the rule. The House, which had been in recess since 10 p.m., reconvened at 1:20 a.m. so the rule could be filed.

The terms of the special rule were somewhat unusual. The leadership chose as a base vehicle an unrelated bill dealing with global human trafficking that had passed the House and Senate. The rule provided for one-hour of debate on a motion to concur in the three-page Senate amendment with an amendment consisting of the 2,200 page omnibus bill. The rule waived all points of order against the motion. Not only was the omnibus substitute not germane to the trafficking bill, but it violated four provisions of the Budget Act.

Debate on the rule focused primarily on the fact that no one had had time to read the massive bill (or even a summary). Congress had learned the hard way on previous omnibus occasions that embarrassing tidbits would later come to light --member goodies tucked deep inside like golden needles in a giant hay stack threatening institutional sepsis by a thousand pricks.

It became clear from the debate on the rule which began around 9:15 a.m. Thursday that no one was proud of the process. However, debate was somewhat muted as Rules Committee members were still in shock at the sudden death of the committee’s ranking Democrat Louise SlaughterDorothy (Louise) Louise SlaughterNew York New Members 2019 Democrats see hypocrisy in GOP attacks on ‘liberal mob’ Poll: Dem leads by 24 points in race to replace Louise Slaughter MORE of New York the previous Friday. Nevertheless, the committee’s newly elevated ranking Democrat, James McGovernJames (Jim) Patrick McGovernTrump’s arms export rules will undermine US security and risk human rights abuses The campaign for prisoners of conscience: A call to action House majority rules spark minority fights MORE of Massachusetts, took the lead by calmly lambasting the Republican leadership for the disgraceful state of affairs: “…this place is broken,” he charged. “This process stinks….Don’t endorse this lousy, broken process by voting for this rule.”

Democratic Whip Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerDemocrats with military background offer support for Pelosi DeGette drops challenge to Clyburn in Dem leadership race Marcia Fudge under spotlight as Pelosi Speaker fight heats up MORE of Maryland echoed McGovern’s complaint, only at a higher and angrier decibel level: “This is an abomination of the legislative process. You have had six months to get it right….This rule ought to go down.”

At the end of the hour’s debate, McGovern urged members to vote against the previous question motion so he could amend the rule to make in order his “Dream Act” legislation to adjust the status of unauthorized immigrants who entered the U.S. as children. The previous question was nevertheless adopted along straight party lines, 233-186, on a 15-minute vote. That was immediately followed by a five-minute vote on adopting the rule. When 25 Republicans broke ranks to vote against the rule, Democrats were in a quandary over whether to let the rule go down. Ultimately the rule squeaked by, 211-207, with one Democrat voting in favor, and nine not voting --three more than didn’t vote on the previous question.

While some Democrats complained to reporters about a quick gavel that cut them off while trying to vote, a review of the video shows no one attempting to vote from the well where they must sign a voting card after time has expired (the vote had been held open three additional minutes). The faux outrage was not convincing as the House went on to pass the omnibus bill, 256-167, with 111 Democrats voting in the affirmative, and 77 voting against. The debate on the rule served Democrats’ purpose of highlighting a badly broken process and served Republicans’ purpose of showing they could govern, albeit belatedly.

Don Wolfensberger is a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center and the Bipartisan Policy Center, former staff director of the House Rules Committee, and author of “Changing Cultures in Congress: From Fair Play to Power Plays.” The views expressed are solely his own.