House revives floor amendments
© Greg Nash

In my previous Congress Blog (June 28) I lamented that the House Democratic leadership had barred any and all floor amendments to six major bills, all made in order by a single special rule. I wondered if this was going to be the new normal, at least for the duration of the pandemic, or whether it was an aberration.

The following week, the Rules Committee allayed my concern by pulling a 180, soliciting amendments from members to a voluminous infrastructure investment bill (H.R. 2), variously called “The INVEST in America Act” and “The Moving Forward Act.” In the interest of space, I will not elaborate on what the all-caps acronym in the former title stands for. (Advisory to bill drafters: Avoid acronym-o-philia, the love of overly-clever bill titles.).

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee had ordered the bill reported on June 29 by voice vote. However, the penultimate vote on the chairman’s amendment-in -the-nature- of-a substitute was adopted along strict party lines, 35 to 25. The five year-re-authorization as amended was 1,056 pages in length at a total cost of $440 billion.

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As things seem to happen more frequently these days, the bill underwent a metamorphosis on its way to the Rules Committee (read: a Democratic leadership intervention), ballooning in size to 2,309 pages and in cost to $1.5 trillion. The leadership’s embellishments were mainly centered on the “Green New Deal” agenda to combat climate change and the carbon footprint created by our various transportation modes and energy generation.

The new leadership-propelled substitute amendment was self-executed to adoption in Part A of the Rules Committee report on the rule, followed by groups of en bloc amendments in Parts B through G, averaging around 30 amendments in each part. Finally, three amendments were made in order in Part H, all subject to separate debate and votes. All told, 355 amendments had been filed with the Rules Committee –212 (60 percent) by Democrats, 89 (25 percent) by Republicans, and 54 (15 percent) bipartisan. The special rule reported made in order 171 amendments –135 (79 percent) by Democrats, 19 (11 percent) by Republicans, and 17 (10 percent) bipartisan.

While it is not unusual for the majority to get a disproportionate share of amendments made in order, in this instance there were still 77 Democratic amendments submitted (and not withdrawn) that did not make the cut, versus 69 Republican and 34 bipartisan amendments.

The special rule did, however, contain an interesting new twist, by authorizing the chairman of the committee managing an en bloc amendment to single out any amendment in Parts B-G for a separate vote, that is, kick-them out of the en bloc block. The irony is that ordinarily en bloc amendments are those on which both sides agree to bundle several in order to avoid lengthy separate debates and roll call votes. In this instance bipartisanship was not a prerequisite for being included in an en bloc, nor was it a guarantee of staying included.

Republicans’ complaint throughout the committee process and on the floor was that they had been frozen-out by a totally partisan, messaging process in stark contrast to the committee’s past bipartisan partnership mode of proceeding. Democrats responded that Republicans had turned against the process by refusing to recognize the seriousness of climate change and efforts to address it.

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Over the two days of House floor consideration of the special rule for H.R. 2 (H. Res. 1028) and the bill itself (June 30 and July 1), there were a total of five roll call votes on separate amendments singled out, and two on the motion to recommit with instructions (the minority’s final chance to offer an amendment) and final passage. While the bill itself easily passed on a near party-line vote 233-188 (with only three Democratic defections), the motion to recommit was surprisingly adopted, 224 to 193, over the opposition of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chairman and the entire Democratic leadership. The motion contained a “buy America” amendment prohibiting any of the funds in the bill from going to foreign-owned corporations or subsidiaries in non-market economy countries. It was aimed primarily at China. Thirty-nine Democrats slipped their leadership’s traces to support the amendment.

One interesting and encouraging factoid that came to light during debate on the rule was revealed by its Republican manager, Rep. Rob WoodallWilliam (Rob) Robert WoodallDemocrats, GOP fighting over largest House battlefield in a decade House Democrats' campaign arm reserves .6M in ads in competitive districts Hispanic Caucus campaign arm endorses slate of non-Hispanic candidates MORE (Ga.). He said the Democratic leadership had initially expressed a preference for a closed amendment rule for H.R. 2, but Rules Committee Chairman James McGovernJames (Jim) Patrick McGovernOcasio-Cortez, progressives call on Senate not to confirm lobbyists or executives to future administration posts House goes postal for one day The Hill Interview: Colombian President Duque calls for multilateral COVID-19 solutions MORE (D-Mass.) and a junior member of the committee, Rep. Joseph MorelleJoseph (Joe) MorelleNY, NJ lawmakers call for more aid to help fight coronavirus Overnight Health Care: House panel advances legislation on surprise medical bills | Planned Parenthood, ACLU sue over Trump abortion coverage rule | CDC identifies 13th US patient with coronavirus House panel advances bipartisan surprise billing legislation despite divisions MORE (D-N.Y.) had pushed-back in favor of a more open amendment process, and the leadership relented.

On a bill that literally hits home with every member over badly needed dollars to rebuild our country’s crumbling infrastructure (for highways, rail, bridges, mass transit, schools, water systems and broadband access), as the comedian Jimmy Durante used to say, “Everyone wants to get into the act.” The leadership could well have lost on adoption of the rule if they had prevailed in imposing a no amendment process.

Don Wolfensberger is a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars 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.