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‘Last stop’ House committee takes its turn in the limelight

Panel wielding influence on bulk of Democrats' agenda

Chairman Jim McGovern, background center, and ranking member Rep. Tom Cole, to McGovern’s right, conduct a House Rules Committee meeting on the Build Back Better Act inside the Capitol on Wednesday.
Chairman Jim McGovern, background center, and ranking member Rep. Tom Cole, to McGovern’s right, conduct a House Rules Committee meeting on the Build Back Better Act inside the Capitol on Wednesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

After 13 committees spent countless hours in September preparing a $3.5 trillion-plus partisan budget reconciliation package, the House Rules Committee — “the most powerful committee that people haven’t heard of,” according to its chairman, Jim McGovern, D-Mass. — is going to cut the measure almost in half. 

It’s not that panel Democrats, all party loyalists, want to cut spending on the social safety net and climate change mitigation. But it’s their job to tweak bills so they ultimately have the votes to pass.

“Our job is to legislate through the consensus of the caucus, get things on the floor that are going to be able to move forward to the Senate,” said Rules member Norma J. Torres, D-Calif. 

The final reconciliation text will be introduced in Rules through a manager’s amendment to the original package assembled by the Budget Committee. It’s possible a few versions will be floated before Democratic leaders are certain they have one that can pass within their narrow three-vote margin, but lawmakers are hoping to avoid that after months of fits and starts in the negotiations. 

“We’re going to be the last stop to stitch the pieces together before it goes to the floor,” McGovern said.

It’s that “last stop” status that gives Rules its power, McGovern and other members said in interviews. The panel has no original legislative jurisdiction, but the policy areas it can influence are endless. 

“Anything is really in our jurisdiction because we see everything,” Torres said.

The reconciliation package may be the definition of everything.

It would spend hundreds of billions of dollars on child care, elder care, affordable housing, carbon reduction and Medicare benefits. It would give out tax breaks for families, renewable energy and health insurance. It would raise taxes on multinational corporations, unincorporated businesses and the ultrarich and cut health care spending by paying less for selected prescription drugs.

McGovern and other Democrats are basking in the bill’s scope, calling it “transformative.”

Republicans slam it as “socialist” overreach. 

Rules ranking member Tom Cole said Democrats’ decision to cut costs by sunsetting programs early is a “pretty slipshod way of legislating.”

“We’re setting up a whole series of cliffs out there that are going to bedevil Congress for literally years to come,” the Oklahoma Republican said.

Cole acknowledged that’s standard operating procedure for reconciliation bills but said this Democratic package goes further than past measures from either party. “We had some cliffs built into the Republican tax proposal, but nothing of this magnitude,” he said.

As for the Rules Committee’s role, Cole says Democrats are trying to push through too many last-minute changes, with minimal input from the committees of jurisdiction.

“I don’t think we’re particularly well-placed to be playing the role we’re playing,” he said. “We’re normally a traffic cop procedural committee.”

From left, Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., and House Appropriations Committee ranking member Kay Granger, R-Texas, talk before the start of the House Rules Committee meets to formulate a rule on the H.R.4502 appropriations bill on Monday, July 26, 2021. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Basic functions

The committee sets the rules of the House for every new Congress and the terms under which legislation will be debated on the floor.

The panel typically considers only two types of bills: larger measures for which the majority wants to allow amendments and more partisan bills that can’t get the two-thirds support needed to pass under suspension of the rules.

Some rules are closed, barring amendments and setting up quick debate. Others allow hundreds of amendments for debate that can stretch for days. 

“All the big stuff comes through Rules,” said Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon, D-Pa. “So as a newer member, that’s great because it really exposes you to what’s going on and how it’s getting done. But it is a lot of late and early hours.”

Rep. Ed Perlmutter , D-Colo., said the “crazy hours and little notice” come with the job, but McGovern has created a more predictable schedule than when he served under the late Chairwoman Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y. Perlmutter said he loves serving on Rules because “you’re in the middle of the legislative process.”

Rules members learn about every bill that comes to the floor because committee chairs and ranking members testify before the panel and take questions. Other lawmakers are welcome to show up too.

“I see it more as a members committee, as a way to really facilitate information about policy to members,” Torres said. 

Still, Rules is one of a handful of House committees where the speaker and minority leader appoint members and their broader caucuses have no say. Scanlon, like most Rules members, did not seek the assignment, but she said, “I’m enjoying it more than I thought it would.”

‘Speaker’s committee’

While Rules is nicknamed “the speaker’s committee,” McGovern says Speaker Nancy Pelosi has empowered him. 

“I can’t recall an instance where she has said you have to do it exactly this way,” he said.

Other Rules members agree the notion that the committee has no autonomy is overblown.

Chairman Jim McGovern, D-Mass., and Rep. Norma Torres, D-Calif., conduct a House Rules Committee markup on amendments including raising the debt limit in the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday, October 12, 2021. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Torres says she’s used her perch to get pieces of larger bills she’s introduced or co-sponsored into bills that are moving to the floor, which begins “to move things forward and not get stuck.”

Earlier this year as Rules considered the annual defense authorization bill, Perlmutter argued that a marijuana banking bill he’d been trying to get enacted for years was a germane amendment because it had a security component. It was made in order and ultimately added to the bill on the floor.

“Some people might quarrel with that a little bit, but I did my homework and I’m sitting in the right committee,” he said. “So you can shape things from time to time.”

‘A little more jockeying’

Rules has been especially busy this year, with Democrats trying to enact President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda. But a three-vote margin hasn’t made Rules’ work easy. 

“It does feel like this this term, there’s been a little more jockeying and coming back with bills again,” Scanlon said.

There have been the normal attempts to fine-tune legislation before it goes to the floor, with multiple manager amendments sometimes needed to get the language or the votes in order. 

But a particularly extraordinary moment came in August when Rules met three times to report out a rule for a voting rights bill and Senate-passed infrastructure legislation that would “deem” the fiscal 2022 budget resolution, the critical precursor for reconciliation, adopted. 

A group of moderates had threatened to vote against the rule, and therefore the budget, unless leadership committed to a quick vote on the infrastructure bill. Rules’ three attempts resulted in rule language saying the House would consider the infrastructure measure on Sept. 27. The House debated the bill that week, but it has yet to pass because progressives said they’d only vote for it if it moved alongside the reconciliation package. 

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Cole said. “When they’ve got to come back three times to a committee that they control to refashion rules, it’s because the speaker doesn’t have the level of control inside of her own conference that she’s had.”

Perlmutter admits it was a high-stakes moment for panel Democrats. “There are times where — and especially with tight majorities like we have right now — where you’d better make sure it’s exactly what enough of us can vote on,” he said.

Civility and scotch

Despite the partisan nature of House procedure, Rules is “one of the more civil committees on the Hill,” Scanlon said. 

“We genuinely like each other, even though we may not agree with each other,” McGovern said. “The fact is we spend an awful lot of time together in a very small room.”

Those relationships have been tested since Rules doesn’t enforce a five-minute limit on members’ speaking time like in other committees, which is “sometimes a blessing, sometimes a curse,” McGovern admitted. 

McGovern and Cole independently touted their close working relationship and mutual respect from both the majority and minority staff.

“Oftentimes votes on rules are partisan, but I appreciate his advice,” McGovern said of Cole. “And a lot of times I take it.” 

McGovern declined to provide an example of Cole’s counsel, saying, “If I did, I’d get in trouble.”

“I won’t either, otherwise he won’t ever take it again,” Cole said.

But Cole did reveal one secret to their good relationship. He keeps a bottle of McGovern’s favorite scotch in case the chairman comes to visit.

McGovern, meanwhile, hung a portrait of a famous Chickasaw Nation member named Te Ata Fisher, who is a relative of Cole’s, behind his seat in the Rules hearing room. “I thought it would be nice to put something behind him that was meaningful to him,” he said.

Anti-hunger initiative

The panel’s unique position can sometimes allow it to push policy issues languishing in other committees. McGovern has held 11 hearings, roundtables and site visits focused on addressing food insecurity in America.

“The issue of hunger, food insecurity, nutrition security falls under jurisdiction of multiple committees, and we never deal with it holistically,” McGovern said. “And, quite frankly, I’m not satisfied with the progress we’re making.” 

McGovern is working with the committees of jurisdiction on potential legislation, but his big goal is to get the White House to hold a conference on food nutrition, health and hunger next year, which would be the first since 1969. The conference would be a venue to discuss a variety of solutions, from legislation and administrative actions to community engagement.

“We have an opportunity to do some homework they can run with,” McGovern said, noting that the White House has been receptive to the idea.

Cole said the hunger conference is “a worthy goal” and that Republicans have tried to constructively participate in the anti-hunger forums despite disagreeing with some of Democrats’ preferred solutions.

McGovern hopes his series will inspire future leaders of the panel to think beyond procedure.

“The Rules Committee can be a place where we solve big problems,” he said.

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