Ryan changes rules for spending bills

Ryan changes rules for spending bills
© Greg Nash

House GOP leaders on Wednesday announced that they will begin restricting contentious amendments on spending bills, a move that critics say violates the party’s commitment to regular order.

Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanPaul Ryan praises Trump: 'He's not taking any crap' The Hill's Morning Report - Crunch time arrives for 2020 Dems with debates on deck Ocasio-Cortez calls out Steve King, Liz Cheney amid controversy over concentration camp remarks MORE (R-Wis.) used most of a conference meeting Wednesday morning to outline the party’s new strategy to unjam the appropriations process. For remaining spending bills, all amendments will be approved by the House Rules Committee before the debate reaches the floor.  

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GOP leaders hope the new rules will lend control to what has been a chaotic appropriations process this spring. Several Republicans in the room said Ryan described it as a last-ditch attempt to block Democrats' “poison pills,” amendments they say are designed to derail the underlying spending legislation.

He specifically pointed to the Democratic amendment condemning LGBT discrimination that was added to the energy and water bill last month. Democrats then opposed the bill on the floor because of spending levels, helping to sink the entire legislation.

But the abrupt shift is also striking fear in some more conservative members, who believe leadership could block Republican-led amendments considered risky votes in an election year.

“Our leadership is using this as an excuse to close down the process,” Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) said after the meeting.

“Ostensibly, it would protect Republicans from Democrats. What they could try to do is protect all Republicans from taking difficult votes, which may be conservative issues,” Massie said.

The decision to move away from an open-rule process was likely a tough choice for Ryan, a former Budget Committee chairman, who has vowed to restore regular order to the appropriations process. 

“I think it was something he probably preferred not to do, but he felt like he had to do,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a member of the House Appropriations Committee. “That’s his responsibility as Speaker. You have to make some tough decisions.”

Ryan has endured months of heartburn over the House GOP’s failure to pass a budget. After promising to put forward a budget earlier this year, Republican leaders decided last month to begin debating appropriations bills without formally adopting a budget resolution.

So far, the House has passed just one appropriations bill: the military construction and veterans' affairs bills. The full House Appropriations Committee or its subcommittees have approved nine.

The shift toward what is called a "structured rule" process — particularly after the drawn-out floor fight over the LGBT amendment — gives new ammunition to House Democrats, who had already been criticizing the GOP for a shaky budget season.

Rep. Sean Maloney (D-N.Y.), the author of the LGBT amendment, penned an op-ed Wednesday accusing Ryan of making an “about-face” on his commitment to regular order. 

“Republican leaders now might bend the rules in order to advance discrimination,” Maloney wrote in an op-ed co-authored by House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.).

It’s a return to a familiar fight in the House. 

Last year, the House GOP was forced to pull a spending bill for the Interior Department after Democrats added an amendment that would have banned Confederate flags at national cemeteries.

Until that point, House Republicans, led by former Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerTed Cruz, AOC have it right on banning former members of Congress from becoming lobbyists Rep. Amash stokes talk of campaign against Trump The Hill's Morning Report - Trump, Biden go toe-to-toe in Iowa MORE (Ohio), had bragged about their commitment to open-rule bills. BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerTed Cruz, AOC have it right on banning former members of Congress from becoming lobbyists Rep. Amash stokes talk of campaign against Trump The Hill's Morning Report - Trump, Biden go toe-to-toe in Iowa MORE frequently compared his record to the closed-rules process adopted by his predecessor, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). 

In a release in 2014, Boehner’s office cited a congressional expert who called open rules “essential for fair consideration of legislation on the House floor.” The release also said the open-rule process “is in keeping with the traditions of the House.”

Cole, who leads the labor and health appropriations subcommittee, said that the GOP’s decision to ditch an open-rule process follows a precedent set by Democrats.

“Democrats did the same thing, and frankly, sort of drove us to doing this,” Cole said. “I think the Speaker’s been patient, I think the majority’s been patient. I think they’ve said, well, we’ve had enough so we’ll go to a structured rule.”