It’s a bit of a running joke: When writing about the House Rules Committee, one must always label it the “powerful House Rules Committee.” Yes, it is powerful; it’s the committee that determines what legislation gets a vote—and under what conditions—on the House floor. But for the committee’s individual members, “power” pretty much exists only on paper.
Members of this committee haven’t had much agency—by design. The majority members are all always handpicked by the speaker to be loyal allies and process the speaker’s wishes. The minority members remain loyal to the minority leader, who usually doesn’t have enough votes to make a difference. In recent decades, it’s the speakership that’s grown more and more powerful. The Rules Committee has served as little more than the speaker’s instrument.
That’s about to change.
Among the reported concessions Speaker Kevin McCarthy made to his right flank during his weeklong battle for the gavel was to give hard-right Freedom Caucus members—or “Freedom Caucus–adjacent” members—three seats on the Rules Committee.
“I don’t know anything about any of that,” Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole, the incoming chair of the Rules Committee and a loyalist to several Republican speakers over the last decade, told me on Friday, Jan. 6, when reports of the concession were first coming out.
Maybe he was just in denial.
There’s a world of difference between giving Freedom Caucus members and their fellow travelers three seats on the Rules Committee versus two. The ratio of the committee is nine Republicans to four Democrats. By giving the rabble-rousers three seats, McCarthy’s six remaining loyalists would be outnumbered by Democrats and the far right.
I had thought, for that reason, that McCarthy might try to weasel out of this reported concession by nominating, say, a softer Freedom Caucus member who could be easily swayed. But when McCarthy finally announced his Rules Committee appointments this week, that was not the case. The three far-right appointees on his list are genuine hard-asses, members not known for their cooperative spirit.
South Carolina Rep. Ralph Norman, for example, was one of the staunchest holdouts of McCarthy’s bid for speaker. During that weeklong floor fight, I asked Norman what he wanted from McCarthy.
“Is he willing to shut the government down rather than raise the debt ceiling?” Norman responded. Not exactly a go-along-to-get-along guy to have on your team when you’re trying to move a debt ceiling increase to the floor.
Texas Rep. Chip Roy, one of the leaders of the holdouts who helped negotiate McCarthy’s ultimate ascension, was also appointed to the Rules Committee. Roy is comfortable playing gadfly and savors moments where he can, for example, be the one member to object to unanimous passage of disaster relief funding.
Perhaps the most surprising appointment, though, was the ultimate outsider within his own party: Kentucky Rep. Thomas Massie, who’s not a member of the Freedom Caucus. An idiosyncratic libertarian from Kentucky now in his seventh term, Massie has earned the nickname “Mr. No” for his regular votes against just about everything. Just this week, a resolution “commending the bravery, courage, and resolve of the women and men of Iran demonstrating in more than 133 cities and risking their safety to speak out against the Iranian regime’s human rights abuses” passed 420 to 1. Massie was the one.
The appointments of Norman, Roy, and Massie make for a whole new world on the Rules Committee—and in the governance of the House—in which the speaker doesn’t have total control of what can be brought to the floor. Such a weakening of the speakership is not a concession any speaker candidate would make unless his back was against the wall, as McCarthy’s was. The way McCarthy justifies it now, though, is that if a small bloc of members are going to rebel against a bill, they might as well work it out first in the Rules Committee rather than on the floor.
“Five of them can easily stop the rule going through. So my take to them is, ‘I want you in here. Your goal is you all work together,’ ” McCarthy told Punchbowl News. “When this comes out of Rules, you’ve got the microcosm of the conference. There should be no problem on the floor there.”
The new members’ inclusion on the Rules Committee will mean, at least in the short term, a return to a long-lost way of legislating: by allowing members to offer amendments from the floor. On Thursday, for example, the House considered an oil and gas bill under a so-called “modified open rule,” which allows any member to offer a floor amendment so long as it had been preprinted in the Congressional Record. It was the first bill considered under a “modified open rule” since 2016. This is the sort of involvement from the rank and file on the legislative process that holdouts like Roy had fought for.
To consider why it’s been nearly seven years since there’s been an open amendment process, consider what happened nearly seven years ago. An appropriations bill failed in the House after an LGBT rights amendment put forth by Democrats was successfully adopted. Shortly thereafter, then-Speaker Paul Ryan tightened control of the amendment process, turning to the Rules Committee to screen out Democratic amendments that could derail passage of the underlying bill. Many members, uninterested in taking difficult votes on Democratic amendments, celebrated the move. Massie, speaking to The Dispatch this week, called it one of the “10 most depressing moments I’ve had in Congress.”
Will this newfound commitment to the freewheeling amendment processes—now enforced by a bloc of previous back-bencher gadflies sitting on the Rules Committee—run into the same problems that led to elimination of the process in the first place? Oh, you can bet your life savings on it.
At some point, House Republicans will fail to pass a major bill following Democratic hijinks in the amendment process. The calls to eliminate open rules, once again, will reach a cacophony.
And then, these new, rebellious members of the Rules Committee might get a taste of what life is like in leadership roles, and adjust. McCarthy doesn’t have a majority big enough to treat the hardliners the way speakers Boehner and Ryan did: by isolating them and getting the votes elsewhere. Boehner and Ryan, in fact, must be terrified to see the day where Thomas Massie is on the Rules Committee. What McCarthy has to do, instead, is keep the gadflies on the inside so they feel they have some buy-in on leadership decisions. Maybe this will all work out ideally for McCarthy. Maybe, just maybe, after a few bruising experiments with open amendment processes, McCarthy turns “Mr. No” into yet another hardened realist on leadership who recognizes “regular order” is a pipe dream.