When a stopgap measure to fund the government comes to the House floor Wednesday, there will be little fanfare, no drawn-out floor speeches and no amendments, a sharp contrast from the remarkable debate on the chamber’s budget resolution during the first part of the 112th Congress.
By and large, Speaker John Boehner and his Republican leadership team have kept their word to keep legislation open to amendments on the floor, an assurance they made during their campaign to take back the chamber. But from time to time, Republicans have found it is necessary to bend that promise, opening them to criticism that they have broken their “Pledge to America.”
That exercise will play out Wednesday with the continuing resolution, which would keep the government funded until late November.
Unlike the debate on the budget resolution, when Members introduced hundreds of amendments under a completely open process, debate on the CR will be tightly limited.
In this breach, the process will mirror the debt limit deal in July and August, which was cut behind closed doors and taken to the floor expeditiously.
But governing is complicated, Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck said, and the times when House GOP leaders employed closed processes were initiated by Senate inaction, he argued, not ill House intentions.
“In a bicameral legislature, our rules — including the Pledge — only apply to the House, but we also have to deal with the Senate — which can make things more complicated,” Buck said in an email.
House Rules Committee spokeswoman Jo Maney said the party has long recognized that there would be scenarios in which regular order would not be realized, citing the debt deal and the CR.
“When we’re going up against deadlines like the end of the fiscal year and we have to keep the government running, no one wants to see a shutdown,” she said. “We pledge to go back to regular order for appropriations bills.”
Democrats see it differently, however, claiming the pledge by Republicans to make this the most open House in history is just bluster. They plan to seize on the process Wednesday and accuse Republicans of placing asterisks in a campaign document.
Democratic staffers on the House Rules Committee say that 40 percent of all bills — excluding those brought under suspension of the rules — were brought to the floor under a closed rule, while another 37 percent were brought under structured rules. Nine percent came under modified open rules and the same percentage of rules were completely open.
Buck countered that the statistics don’t contradict the pledge because it only applies to spending bills. As written, it reads, “We will make sure that the floor schedule and operations reflect the priority of revitalizing the economy, and ensure there is an open process that makes it easier — not harder — to eliminate unnecessary spending on any legislation that spends the people’s money.”
Rules Committee Democrats cite as examples of legislation that came to floor under closed rules the GOP’s legislation to repeal the Affordable Care Act, extensions of spending authority for federal aviation and ground transportation programs, and a measure to cut off funding for National Public Radio.
The three-day rule has succumbed to tight deadlines, too. The debt deal was not posted online for three days before the vote, for example.
When two Members voted before they were sworn in on Jan. 7, a resolution to strike their votes was introduced and approved the same day. Maney said the vote was aboveboard because the three-day rule does not apply to resolutions.
“The three-day layover rule applies to legislation; it does not apply to House resolutions,” she said. “House resolutions don’t have the force of law.”
The scuffle over process is a constant irritant between the majority and minority.
In 2009, House Republicans criticized Democrats for limiting amendments to appropriations bills, claiming the use of structured rules for spending bills was unprecedented and violated the minority’s rights. Democrats responded that similar rules were used by Republicans when they were in the majority.
Now Democrats find themselves arguing for a more open process, saying Republicans have tamped down on their ability to offer amendments. Republicans argue they are being more open than their predecessors.
Sen. Roy Blunt, who previously served as Whip when he was in the House, said his colleagues should stick with their pledge to a more open process, particularly since it was made to draw a contrast with the leadership of then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
“I actually think they need to do that for one Congress and see how well it works, if that’s what you promised to do. It might be more difficult than some other way, and then next time you have to go back and explain why this didn’t work out as well as you thought it would,” the Missouri Republican said. “Pelosi and the health care bill drew a level of attention to huge bills and Members not reading them … and established a different level of public concern about these issues.”
The pledge, of course, is a political, not a legal, document.
That means the repercussions of breaking it — or being perceived as doing so — will be political, too, said Jason Poblete, a former Republican staffer who worked alongside Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) in the office of McCarthy’s predecessor, Rep. Bill Thomas (R).
“The voters will decide when [or] if we broke them,” Poblete said.