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Speaker Race Could Hinge on Who Agrees to Change the Rules

House members have an ultimatum for those who covet the top spot: No changes, no gavel

Rep. Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J., is among the members demanding wholesale rules changes. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Rep. Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J., is among the members demanding wholesale rules changes. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Whichever party controls the House in 2019, the next speaker won’t secure the job easily and will likely have to promise major changes to how the institution operates, with members demanding that as a condition for support.

Frustration has grown among rank-and-file members for years as leadership usurped decision-making power from committees. Lawmakers have pushed to change House and caucus rules to return influence to individuals and committees, but with limited success.

Retiring Speaker Paul D. Ryan got the job promising to restore so-called regular order. Most Republicans say Ryan listens to their ideas on big legislation, but bills get still crafted with heavy leadership input.

Bills on the floor are still mostly closed to amendment — the 115th Congress broke the record for the number of closed rules — and bipartisan bills rarely move.

Many are sick of this, and some, like New York Republican Rep. Tom Reed, are so fed up they won’t support a candidate for speaker who doesn’t back wholesale change.

‘Break the gridlock’

Reed co-chairs the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, which last week unveiled “Break the Gridlock,” a package of proposed House rule changes.

He and New Jersey’s Josh Gottheimer, the Democratic co-chair, said in separate interviews their caucus devises bipartisan approaches to divisive issues like immigration, health care and gun safety that hit roadblocks in getting to the floor. 

Their package aims to address that dynamic by including a fast-track process for legislation co-sponsored by at least two-thirds of the House; a guarantee each member gets at least one markup of a bill they file to a committee they serve on if it has a co-sponsor across the aisle; a three-fifths threshold to pass bills under a closed rule; and at least one germane amendment from each party for structured rules.

Three dozen — 23 Democrats and 13 Republicans — of the 46-member Problem Solvers Caucus endorsed the package, but not all say their vote for speaker is conditional on support of the proposals. Six of the members backing the package are retiring or running for other office and won’t have a vote for speaker.

Lining up members who will is a work in progress, Reed said. The Problem Solvers have been talking to other centrist caucuses — the New Democrat Coalition, Blue Dog Democrats, Tuesday Group and Main Street Caucus.

“What we’re looking to do now is line up formal commitments, like myself and others who said they will not support a speaker candidate unless they support the rule reforms of Break the Gridlock,” Reed said.

Speaker candidates open 

Only one potential speaker has formally weighed in on Break the Gridlock.

“These are the kind of proposals the House ought to consider under a new Democratic majority in January,” Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland said in a statement. “It is critical that members are empowered to bring legislation forward and have their bills considered under regular order, and we ought to return to a process where major legislation is shaped by members in committee and not behind closed doors by a select few.” 

Reed said he can see himself and other GOP Problem Solvers voting for a Democratic speaker if they’re in the minority if that person backs the package.

“If we lose the House, I would consider voting for a candidacy such as Steny Hoyer,” he said.

Hoyer is not running for speaker but would if Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi — the favorite but not a shoo-in if Democrats retake the majority — were to step aside or fail to get the votes.

Pelosi wrote a Dear Colleague letter Monday expressing interest in changes.

“As we move toward a more Democratic Congress, we promise a more democratic Congress,” the California Democrat wrote. “To that end, we must be ready with a rules package on the first day of the 116th Congress — a Congress of civility, fairness and transparency.”

A Pelosi aide she supports many of the Problem Solver proposals but pointed to the part of her letter noting the Rules Committee has jurisdiction and will take the lead in the 116th Congress rules package.

“You will be hearing from the Rules Committee welcoming any suggestions and meeting proposals you may have,” Pelosi wrote.

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McCarthy could benefit

If the Democratic Problem Solvers back a Republican supporting their proposals, it could benefit someone like Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who couldn’t secure his own party’s votes for a 2015 speaker bid.

The California Republican could decide it’s easier to court centrist Democrats than far-right Republicans. His office did not return a request for comment.

Majority Whip Steve Scalise, who is prepared to run should McCarthy falter, signaled his openness to changes. When he chaired the Republican Study Committee, the Louisiana Republican advocated for process changes to encourage more member involvement.

“I appreciate the work being done by the Problem Solvers, as well as other caucuses, to make the House work more effectively and efficiently,” Scalise said in a statement.

Rep. Jim Jordan, the only Republican to declare for speaker so far, said in a Dear Colleague letter he wants “real change” in Congress.

“When we come back from August recess, let’s also talk about how to change the way this place operates. Not the same old talk: Let’s really do it this time,” the co-founder of the House Freedom Caucus wrote. 

Majority still needed

Changing House rules requires support from more than just the speaker. As with legislation, a majority must vote to adopt rules changes. Rules packages are typically adopted on party-line votes.

Some Problem Solvers Caucus members didn’t back Break the Gridlock. Pennsylvania Republican Glenn “GT” Thompson, for example, does not support guaranteeing members a bill markup.

“He views this like receiving a trophy for participation and believes that legislation should be taken up based upon its policy merits and benefit for the public good,” spokeswoman Renée Gamela said.

Another nettlesome Problem Solvers proposal is getting rid of the motion to vacate the chair, a maneuver allowing any member to force a floor vote to oust the speaker. The caucus instead proposes a process requiring a third of members’ signatures for such a vote.

In 2015, North Carolina’s Mark Meadows, who now chairs the Freedom Caucus, used the maneuver to target Speaker John A. Boehner. Boehner thought he’d prevail, but he ultimately resigned, concerned about the impact on the institution.

“There’s always been talk about why the extremists in the Freedom Caucus have been able to have a vice grip or been able to squash out commonsense ideas,” Gottheimer said. He and Reed argue getting rid of the motion to vacate limits individuals’ ability to hold leadership hostage.

The Freedom Caucus’ leverage extends beyond the motion to vacate, however. The group often stalls legislation they disagree with by voting as a bloc.

Not coincidentally, the group with that kind of leverage in a new bipartisan rule-driven Congress, particularly a narrowly divided one, would be the Problem Solvers Caucus.

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