House relearns history of legislative surprise rule

AP/Julio Cortez

Many a sage, from Burke to Santayana to Churchill, has opined that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. That warning leapt to mind on Wednesday, March 9, as I witnessed a bizarre debacle unfold in the House of Representatives.  It was “Groundhog Day” (the movie), all over again as the House twice had to go through the procedural motions of setting up a vote on the $1.5 trillion “consolidated appropriations” bill to fund the government. 

What was the lesson from history the House had to relearn that day? It was that a standing House rule in existence since 1924 had been adopted for a reason. That rule, now clause 6(a) of rule XIII, prohibits the same-day consideration of a special rule reported by the Rules Committee, “except when so determined by a vote of two-thirds of the Members voting, a quorum being present.”  According to one history of the Rules Committee, the rule was adopted “to protect Members   

from being taken by surprise.”   

However, when the House adopted special, emergency rules for dealing with legislation during the pandemic, it waived the application of clause 6(a) of rule XIII, meaning the Rules Committee can now bring special rules to the floor on the same day they are reported, without the two-thirds vote for considering them.   

And that’s where the problem arose on March 9. For weeks the majority leadership and Appropriations Committee leaders in both bodies had been negotiating a final funding measure for the government. That effort finally came to fruition last week. Once the compromise language was finalized, it was taken to the Rules Committee for a special rule.  The leadership chose a completely unrelated bill, H.R. 2471, providing for development in Haiti, as the vehicle to carry the government funding agreement as a substitute amendment. When the language was available, at least online, the Rules Committee notified its 13 members of an emergency meeting at 1:30 a.m. Wednesday.  

After holding its hearing on the 3,000-page appropriations measure and two other bills, one to ban Russian energy imports, and the other, a short-term, backup continuing appropriations resolution, the Rules Committee ordered its special rule reported by voice vote at 2:30 a.m.        

Because the House had adjourned at 12:30 a.m. after a two and one-half hour recess waiting for the Rules Committee to finish its work, Rules Committee Chairman James McGovern (D-Mass.) was forced to wait until the House convened for a new legislative day at 9 a.m. Wednesday to file his report on the rule. The majority leadership still predicted the House would hold its final votes between 1:30 and 3 p.m. that afternoon. Why the rush? House Democrats were scheduled to take a train to Philadelphia that afternoon for their annual messaging retreat. 

McGovern called up the rule for consideration at 9:15 a.m., yielding half of the hour allotted to the committee’s ranking Republican, Rep. Tom Cole (Okla.).  Cole, expressed his support for the omnibus bill, but urged members to defeat the previous question on the rule so that he could offer an alternative bill for the Russian energy import ban. Otherwise, there was little controversy over the rule itself. 

When debate on the rule was concluded, however, Rep. Jody Hice (R-Ga.), moved that the House adjourn, triggering an automatic rollcall vote. After the motion was rejected, 173 to 255, McGovern made the surprise announcement that he was withdrawing the special rule, and that the Rules Committee would convene immediately on an alternative rule and report it back to the House. He preceded this announcement with a sardonic aside: “Let me just say to the Members that things are going exactly as to plan. Everything is beautiful in its own way.” Of course, the opposite was true. 

During debate on the first rule, word spread on both sides that one provision of the consolidated appropriations compromise would rescind $15 billion from the emergency COVID-19 appropriations enacted in March 2021 in order to pay for the new COVID relief provisions in the pending measure. This was money originally intended for the states but which had not yet been drawn upon. The revelation did not sit well with members on both sides of the aisle (although Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), in a colleague letter that afternoon, blamed the rule imbroglio primarily on Republicans).    

After a three-hour recess, during which the Rules Committee held a hurried meeting and reported a new rule separating the COVID relief funding into a separate measure, the House came back into session, debated and passed the rule, the consolidated funding bill, and the Russian energy import ban bill, finally adjourning around midnight. Those Democratic members still wishing to travel to Philadelphia for their retreat were bused there, having missed their train. One House Democrat was heard grumbling on his way out the door, “This retreat is cursed.” 

George Hegel had the final word on the lessons of history: “The only thing that we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history.” At least the House now has a better idea why the 1924 rule required a supermajority vote to consider a special rule on the same day it is reported: It is to spare members the embarrassment of not knowing what is in legislation thrust upon them in the dead of night.   

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. 

Tags Continuing Appropriations Resolution James McGovern Jody Hice Nancy Pelosi Tom Cole United States House Committee on Rules
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