After setbacks, some House Democrats want to repeal a longstanding minority party right
© Greg Nash

If you asked John Q. and Jane Public what a motion to recommit is, they might guess it’s a court order for a separated couple to renew their vows. In congressional parlance, though, it is not about reconciling differences between parties but rather of highlighting (and even exacerbating) those differences. That’s because the motion is the minority party’s last chance to offer a floor amendment to a bill before the vote on final passage. 

Because Republicans have already succeeded on two occasions in this Congress to persuade a House majority to adopt amendments in motions to recommit (aka, MTRs), it is driving some Democrats up the chamber’s walls, calling for repeal of the minority’s final (and sometimes only) right to an amendment.

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Whereas a straight motion to recommit simply sends the bill physically back to committee, the motion to recommit with instructions to report back a specified amendment “forthwith” (immediately) is debatable for ten minutes divided between the proponent and an opponent. 

Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiTrump telling aides to look at potential spending cuts if he wins reelection: report Budget talks between White House, Pelosi spill into weekend Trump says he won't watch Mueller testimony MORE (D-Calif.) has strongly urged her caucus members to oppose all minority motions to recommit on grounds that they are procedural in nature. Technically, she is correct: it is a two-step process in which the first vote, if adopted, simply sets up a second vote on the actual substance of the amendment. However, some of the newer members are worried that even the first vote will be used and misconstrued in campaign ads run against them.

In the early Congresses the motion was used mostly by the majority to make technical corrections in a bill before the final vote. In 1909, however, as part of a rules reform package offered to fend off a bipartisan attempt to remove Speaker Joe Cannon (R-Ill.) as chairman of the Rules Committee, the MTR was made a prerogative of those opposing the bill. And in 1932 it was clarified to confine it to an opponent from the minority party.

In the 1970s, majority Democrats resuscitated a Speaker’s ruling from 1934 that upheld the right of the majority to prohibit a motion to recommit from amending a specified title of a bill.  By the 1980s, the Democrats expanded on that precedent on numerous occasions to bar any amendments by the minority in motions to recommit. In 1995, the new Republican-controlled House fully restored the motion as an exclusive right of the minority party to offer any germane amendment.

Both parties, when in the minority have used the motion for partisan political purposes. (Spoiler alert: the House is a political body). The difference is that Republican majorities have done a much better job of holding their troops together in opposing the motion.

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Democrats who call for the repeal of the minority right claim is that it is “antiquated.”  That may have been the case from 1971 to the early 1980s when most major bills were considered open amendment rules and, beginning in 1971, for the first time, amendments offered in the Committee of the Whole were subject to recorded votes. But, beginning in the early 80s, the leadership began clamping down on the amendment process through the Rules Committee.

In the Democratically-controlled 111th Congress (2009-10) there were no open amendment rules, while 66 percent were structured (allowing for only amendments specified in the Rules Committee report), and 34 percent were closed. In the Republican controlled 115th Congress (2017-18), there were no open rules, while 44 percent were structured and 56 percent were closed.  And, in the current Democratic-controlled House there have been no open rules, while 6 (38 percent) have been structured rules and 10 (63 percent) have been closed, leaving the motion to recommit as the only opportunity for the minority to offer an amendment.  

Last week, on H.R. 1, a grab-bag of campaign, election and ethics reforms titled the “For the People Act,” 168 amendments were filed with the Rules Committee – 70 by Republicans, 91 by Democrats and seven bipartisan. The special rule, however, only allowed six Republican amendments, while Democrats were granted 61 amendments, and 5 were bipartisan.

Although Democrats pledged last fall that if elected to the majority they would return to the “regular order” of more open committee and floor participation, the talk now about abolishing or severely limiting the minority right to offer a final recommit amendment flies in the face of that promise. 

In his floor remarks on the opening day of this Congress, Rules Committee Chairman-designate James McGovernJames (Jim) Patrick McGovernHouse Democrats officially introduce contempt resolution for Barr, McGahn After setbacks, some House Democrats want to repeal a longstanding minority party right Sanders, Warren meet ahead of potential 2020 bids MORE (D-Mass.) said, “As chairman of the Rules Committee I am ready to do my part to institute a more accommodating process, one that gives all Members a voice and brings the committee back to the days where big ideas were actually debated, where Members were treated with respect, and where the discourse wasn’t so coarse.”  As of now, however, it appears that the Democratic majority is off on a course of a different color.

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