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House adopts rules package with few Democratic defections over PAYGO provision

Package establishes two select committees, requires committee action before floor votes, among other changes

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., swears in members in the House chamber on the first day of the 116th Congress on Jan. 3, 2019. Later that afternoon the House adopted its rules package for new Congress. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., swears in members in the House chamber on the first day of the 116th Congress on Jan. 3, 2019. Later that afternoon the House adopted its rules package for new Congress. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The House on Thursday adopted the bulk of a rules package for the 116th Congress that featured dozens of changes designed to restore more committee and bipartisan involvement in the legislative process, increase transparency and clamp down on ethics violations. 

The measure, adopted 234 to 197, was crafted by Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Rules Chairman Jim McGovern, D-Mass., with input from members across all factions of the House Democratic majority.

Thursday’s vote was on Title I, which encompasses the vast majority of the rules package. On Friday the House will vote on Title II, which would establish a Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, and on Wednesday the House will vote on Title III, which would authorize the general counsel on behalf of the speaker to intervene in the Texas v. United States lawsuit to defend the constitutionality of the 2010 health care law and ensure that protections for pre-existing conditions continue.

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Only three Democrats — Reps. Ro Khanna of California and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii — voted “no.”

Alabama Democratic Rep. Terri Sewell initially was recorded as a “no” vote but switched to “yes” before the vote closed.

Khanna and Ocasio-Cortez had announced on Twitter Wednesday that they would oppose the package over a pay-as-you-go, or PAYGO, provision that requires legislation that would increase the deficit to be offset by spending cuts or revenue increases. 

Many progressives oppose PAYGO because they feel that some policies that will have a larger economic benefit do not need to be paid for and don’t want the provision to interfere with their goals of passing costly legislation like “Medicare for All.”

PAYGO, however, is also a law that would allow the administration to make cuts to mandatory spending (although many programs like Social Security and Medicare are exempt) to offset any net annual deficit increase due to legislation passed by Congress. 

Give the existence of the law, which like the House rule can be waived by a vote of Congress — and often is — many progressives did not feel the need to vote against the rules package despite opposing PAYGO as a principle. 

“I continue to have concerns with the inclusion of ‘pay-as-you-go’ or PAYGO, but I am pleased that Chairman McGovern and House Leadership have assured us that the rule will not be used to block key progressive priorities this Congress,” freshman Rep. Ilhan Omar said in a statement just before the vote Thursday evening. 

The Minnesota Democrat’s statement echoed one Congressional Progressive Caucus Co-Chairs Mark Pocan and Pramila Jayapal issued the day before. The duo also promised to introduce legislation to repeal the PAYGO statute, although it’s unclear if that’s something Democratic leadership would bring to the floor. 

In an atypical move, three Republicans — Reps. Tom Reed and John Katko of New York and Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania — voted for Democrats’ rules package. They did so because of changes the bipartisan Problems Solvers Caucus, of which they are members, pushed to help facilitate more two-party legislating. This was the first occasion since 2001 in which anyone from the minority party has voted for the majority party’s rules package. 

“The reforms the Problem Solvers Caucus were able to get included in this rules package go a long way to empower the people we represent, enable rank-and-file Members to govern and make it easier for bipartisan bills to pass,” Reed, who co-chairs the caucus, said in a statement Wednesday announcing he’d support the package. “We are proud to walk the talk of reaching across the aisle to best serve the people who sent us here.”

One of the Problem Solvers’ negotiated provisions would create a consensus calendar for stalled bipartisan legislation —  defined in the rules as bills that have at least 290 cosponsors but haven’t been reported out of committee — and require the House vote on at least one calendar item (if one exists) per week in session.

Other highlights of changes in the Democrats’ rules package include:

  • requiring bills to be posted for a full 72 hours before a House vote. This is a clarification of the existing three-day rule that has often been abused with bills being filed late at night on a first day and the House voting early on the third. 
  • requiring, effective March 1, any bill being brought to the floor under a rule to have been reported out of committee and for there to have been at least one committee hearing relevant to the legislation.
  • forming select committees on the “climate crisis.”
  • reinstating an updated version of the so-called Gephardt rule that would trigger automatic House passage of legislation suspending the debt ceiling after the chamber adopts a budget resolution. 
  • repealing the Republican rule requiring so-called dynamic scores (macroeconomic analyses) of major legislation.
  • repealing the so-called Holman rule that allowed floor amendments on appropriations bills to target individual salaries or workforce levels.
  • overhauling the motion to vacate, a legislative maneuver used to oust the speaker, so that it can only be brought up for a vote over the objection of leadership if offered at the direction of a party caucus or conference instead of just a single member. 
  • establishing some voting rights for delegates and the resident commissioner of Puerto Rico.
  • creating the the Office of Diversity and Inclusion to help House members recruit, develop and retain a diverse workforce.
  • creating the Office of the Whistleblower Ombudsman to help develop best practices and trainings for House offices to receive whistleblower information.
  • bar members and staff from serving on corporate boards, effective Jan. 1, 2020.
  • requiring members indicted for certain felonies to resign from leadership and committee assignments until they’re acquitted or the charges against them are dropped.
  • require all members to undergo annual ethics training. Currently, staff are trained annually, but lawmakers are only trained in their first year. 
  • renaming the Oversight and Government Reform Committee as the Oversight and Reform Committee and the Education and the Workforce Committee as the Education and Labor Committee. 

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