It is when things break down that one learns how things really work. In the case of the US House of Representatives, the highly dysfunctional GOP has resulted in me learning new things every day and the latest is the need to “pass a rule” in order to more easily pass legislation.
The House has two ways to pass legislation: By coming directly to the floor for an up-or-down vote, or making a quick pit-stop at the House Rules Committee.
What’s the difference?
Bills that come directly to the House floor for a vote and bypass the Rules Committee are passed “under suspension of the Rule” and require a two-thirds majority of the voting members to pass. Bills that make the pit-stop in the Rules Committee come to the floor with certain debate parameters that must be fulfilled, but this method enables those bills to pass the chamber with a simple majority. But those debate parameters, called “the rule,” must also first be debated and voted on before the House can debate and vote on the underlying bill.
So if it adds more time and more votes, why do it?
Simple answer – it’s easier to pass some legislation with 218 votes than 291, especially when your majority is small. The House Rules Committee – also referred to as the “speaker’s committee” – is highly allied with the House speaker and the committee membership skews heavily in the majority party’s favor. So legislation that comes through Rules is typically exactly what the majority leadership wants it to say.
How does it work?
After the Rules Committee debates and passes the rule, the bill then comes to the House floor, where the two sides debate the rule, then vote on its passage. When the rule passes, then debate on the actual bill begins. So rule failures are rare, because all that vote really does is allow the House to actually begin debating whatever bill is to follow. Voting down a rule essentially is a vote to not even discuss the bill. And since the minority party rarely, if ever, votes for a rule (see above that it’s heavily skewed to the majority) the votes to kill a rule must come from within the majority party itself.
In general, the speaker and majority leadership has no problem getting “the rule” passed. Since 1995, it has failed to do so only eight times, the last time being in 2007. It is a sign of a fractured majority party when it cannot get the rule passed and Kevin McCarthy failed to do so three times in his short tenure as speaker that lasted less than a year.
It now looks like new speaker Mike Johnson may set new records for failing to pass the rule, since the disgruntled members of his party now have another means of obstructing things and have already started using the method of blocking the rule, which essentially means voting against your own party leadership.
The existence of the rule gives people two opportunities to block legislation they dislike. The advantage to rebellious GOPers of voting against the rule is that it is a more subtle way of blocking the legislation. If the legislation goes to the floor, they will be on record as voting for or against it. When you vote. against the rule, it is hard to pinpoint where you stand on the issue. Expect to hear a lot more about votes on the rule in the days to come.
For review, since Johnson took over as speaker, House Republicans have:
Yanked THUD from the floor
Yanked FSGG from the floor
Voted down a rule on CJS
Had 93 no votes on a clean CR
Still no action on AG
Appear to be stalled on Labor-HHS
Now there are two spending deadlines in… https://t.co/9UlaAHyPsu
— Jake Sherman (@JakeSherman) November 15, 2023
Kevin Drum helpfully tells us what these acronyms stand for:
- THUD = Transportation + Housing and Urban Development
- FSGG = General government
- CJS = Commerce + Justice + Science
- AG = Agriculture
- Labor-HHS = Labor + Health and Human Services
Meanwhile GOP member Chip Roy made a speech on the house floor that the Biden-Harris campaign has gleefully seized on for a campaign ad to point out that even Republicans think that the party has not done anything even though they have the majority.
GOP Rep. Roy: I want my Republican colleagues to give me one thing that I can go campaign on and say we did. One! Come and explain to me one meaningful, significant thing the Republican majority has done pic.twitter.com/Es8Sqy4SGj
— Biden-Harris HQ (@BidenHQ) November 15, 2023