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House adopts rules package for the 118th Congress

Leadership tamped down centrist concerns over concessions granted to Freedom Caucus in speaker election

Rep. Tony Gonzales, R-Texas, fears the new rules package could bless steep cuts in defense programs.
Rep. Tony Gonzales, R-Texas, fears the new rules package could bless steep cuts in defense programs. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo.)

The House on Monday adopted its rules package for the 118th Congress, which includes the return of a controversial rule that would allow a single member to force a vote on ousting the speaker.

The rules were adopted on a mostly party-line, 220-213 vote, with one Republican, Texas Rep. Tony Gonzales, joining all Democrats in voting against the resolution.

The change in the motion to vacate process for removing the speaker is among a handful of concessions Speaker Kevin McCarthy made in the rules package to win over his opponents in the ultra-conservative House Freedom Caucus.

However, they had already agreed on the other rules changes before the House began the speaker’s election Tuesday, which ended up dragging out for days before McCarthy won on the 15th ballot early Saturday morning. 

Other McCarthy concessions include rules to limit bills to a single subject and to make it harder to waive the germaneness rule for amendments, as well as a rule setting up a separate vote on a resolution that would create a select Judiciary subcommittee to centralize investigations into the executive branch. 

One of the most significant provisions in the rules package outside of the measures McCarthy included to appease his skeptics is a move to strip House employees’ collective bargaining rights.

Democrats adopted a resolution in May that granted nearly 9,100 House staffers the ability to form unions, but Republicans put language in the rules saying that resolution shall have no force or effect during the 118th Congress.

House Republicans’ rules would also impose term limits for Office of Congressional Ethics board members and require the office to make hiring decisions within 30 days — moves ethics advocates say could effectively gut the watchdog agency and leave it unable to function. 

The OCE makes recommendations to the House Ethics Committee, which the rules package would direct to establish a process for members of the public to flag potential violations. The rules also require the speaker to establish a bipartisan task force to review House ethics rules and regulations and submit a report on recommended improvements. 

Motion to vacate

The motion to vacate the chair, which is the mechanism for ousting the speaker, has received the most attention in the rules debate. Until four years ago, any member could file a privileged motion to vacate. When a measure is privileged, it can be brought up for a vote over the objection of leadership. 

Freedom Caucus members used the motion to vacate in 2015 to help force out then-Speaker John A. Boehner, who resigned before letting such a vote happen, fearing it would tarnish the institution.

Democrats changed the motion to vacate rule in 2019, after taking back the majority, to say it is only privileged if offered at the direction of a party caucus or conference. The newly adopted GOP rules package strikes that language, returning the old rule where only one member is needed to establish privilege. 

An earlier version of the rules package released before McCarthy’s negotiations with the Freedom Caucus members last week would have set the privilege threshold at five members of the majority party. The Freedom Caucus convinced him to drop it to one after promising not to abuse the power. 

Freedom Caucus wins

The rules package also includes a few other changes Freedom Caucus members requested. 

One is a new rule that would prohibit members from introducing bills or joint resolutions after Feb. 1 without including a statement for the Congressional Record designating a single subject of the legislation. The rule does not include any further mechanisms for enforcing the single subject limitation, so it’s unclear this rule will have much practical effect. 

Another change the Freedom Caucus secured is a ban on the Rules Committee practice of waiving points of order against amendments that violate the House’s germaneness rule. Instead, the package creates a new rule requiring the House to vote on any motions to waive germaneness for an amendment after up to 20 minutes of debate.

McCarthy has also agreed to not to waive an existing House rule requiring bills to be released at least 72 hours before a floor vote, but the rules package does not contain any new language to ensure that commitment is upheld.

In the negotiations last week, McCarthy also agreed to give conservatives three of the nine GOP seats on the Rules Committee. Freedom Caucus members have said this is a way for them to ensure the changes they sought are actually enforced.

Incoming Rules Chairman Tom Cole, R-Okla., told reporters Monday afternoon McCarthy has already decided who will fill those seats, but it’s up to the speaker to announce.

The rules package also sets up a vote on a resolution to establish a select Judiciary subcommittee to centralize investigations into the executive branch, called the “Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government.” 

Incoming Judiciary Chairman Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, a founding Freedom Caucus member, and ranking member Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., will have automatic seats on that panel, along with up to 13 other members McCarthy appoints.

Opposition 

Gonzales appeared to be primarily concerned about commitments made outside of the rules package, like a promise to write appropriations bills to fiscal 2022 levels.

That would amount to a $130 billion cut, or 8 percent, from fiscal 2023 levels in the recently enacted omnibus spending law — which if applied proportionally to defense and nondefense would cut about 10 percent or $76 billion from the Pentagon and other security-related programs. But negotiators have said the talks focused on cutting nondefense appropriations, and they expect defense to be largely spared.

Gonzales said Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation” that he planned to vote against the rules package because “this has a proposed billions-of-dollar cut to defense, which I think is a horrible idea, when you have aggressive Russia in Ukraine, you’ve got a growing threat of China in the Pacific.”

Despite Gonzalez’s claim, the rules package does not include any language implementing the agreement between McCarthy and Freedom Caucus members to cut discretionary spending to fiscal 2022 levels. 

Budget rules

The rules package returns some House rules Republicans had when they were last in the majority and Democrats got rid of in 2019. And it eliminates a few rules Democrats had in place for the past two Congresses. 

Several of those are budget-related rules that Republicans feel better adhere to their spending and tax priorities. 

The GOP replaced Democrats’ preferred pay-as-you-go rule, which requires legislation adding to the deficit to be offset with spending cuts or tax increases, with a cut-as-you-go rule that only requires offsets if bills increase mandatory spending within a five-year or ten-year budget window. This means Republicans can pass tax cuts that would add to the deficit.

Republicans would restore a rule requiring a three-fifths supermajority vote to pass any tax rate increases, but it’s a largely symbolic move since the majority controls what legislation and amendments come to the floor.

Other rules would require the Congressional Budget Office and Joint Committee on Taxation to incorporate macroeconomic effects, like changes in economic output and employment, and inflationary impacts into their official cost estimates for “major” legislation.

The rules package would get rid of Democrats’ “Gephardt rule” that would allow the House to automatically send a measure extending the debt limit to the Senate when it adopts a budget resolution. And it would reinstate the “Holman Rule,” which allows members to offer appropriations amendments targeting the jobs or salaries of federal employees.

A summary of the House rules package is here.

Aidan Quigley, Kate Ackley and David Lerman contributed to this report.

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