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State of suspension: Lawmakers gripe about fast-tracked bills under Johnson

His time as speaker has been shaped by suspension of the rules

Since becoming speaker last fall, Mike Johnson has used the suspension process to push through major legislation.
Since becoming speaker last fall, Mike Johnson has used the suspension process to push through major legislation. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

As lawmakers stare down another deadline to fund the government, Speaker Mike Johnson is facing a fresh round of criticism in the House over his go-to move to pass bills: bypass the Rules Committee, sideline Freedom Caucus members and rely on Democrats’ votes. 

The frustration centers on the speaker’s heavy use of a House procedure known as “suspension of the rules,” which is designed to expedite the passage of legislation by barring amendments, limiting debate and avoiding a separate vote on a rule to set the terms of that debate. Placing a bill on what is unofficially known as the “suspension calendar” allows it to skip over the House Rules Committee, the powerful body that, under normal circumstances, gets to control the flow of legislation to the floor. 

The catch: Any measure considered under suspension of the rules requires a two-thirds vote to pass, which means GOP leadership must count on Democrats to help. 

In recent months, Johnson, R-La., has used the suspension process to push through major legislation, including a sweeping $79 billion bipartisan tax bill and an $886 billion national defense policy bill, along with two stopgap spending bills to keep the government funded.

While they disagree on why it matters, a growing number of lawmakers in both parties are taking Johnson to task for what they see as an overreliance on suspending the rules to pass consequential and controversial items. The loudest protests are coming from members of the House Freedom Caucus, who say Johnson is ramming things through the suspension process to avoid negotiating with their membership on policy disputes. 

“I get the sense that leadership is trying to bypass conservatives and instead work with Democrats to get things passed,” Rep. Ralph Norman said in an emailed statement earlier this month.  

Norman described it as a “bad habit” that GOP leadership has fallen into. “I am opposed to leadership utilizing suspensions so frequently to pass these large bills with massive policy implications that we are seeing so often now,” he added. 

The South Carolina congressman, along with fellow Freedom Caucus member Chip Roy of Texas and frequent ally Thomas Massie of Kentucky, is part of a trio of rebellious conservative members who sit on the Rules Committee. Together, they can block legislation they don’t like from clearing the panel and reaching the House floor. 

They landed those spots thanks to a concession made by former Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who had to woo hard-line Republicans as he struggled to win the gavel at the beginning of 2023. Now the GOP conference is reaping what it sowed, according to some Democrats.

“This is a consequence of the bargain McCarthy made,” said Democratic Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez of New Mexico, who sits on the Rules Committee. “It’s because of Republican infighting that they cannot pass rules on the floor.” 

Relying on the suspension calendar for must-pass bills could set a bad precedent for the future, said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, the lead Democrat on the Appropriations Committee. “I think it’s terrible,” she said. “I don’t think it is a good thing going forward.”

DeLauro noted the irony of the situation, which has left Johnson in a weakened negotiating position with Democrats, whose votes he must now rely on to pass big bills as he tries to clear the two-thirds hurdle instead of a simple majority. 

“In attempting to cater to the far right, they have given power to Democrats,” the Connecticut Democrat said. But, she maintained, “I take no particular delight in that.” 

Ruling out the rules

In the increasingly rare case a rule for debate comes to a vote on the House floor, its adoption is no longer a guarantee. 

Last month, a dozen conservatives joined Democrats to sink a rule for unrelated legislation out of protest over Johnson’s budget deal with Democratic leadership. The spectacle echoed one last June, when Freedom Caucus members helped bring down another procedural vote in anger over McCarthy’s handling of the debt ceiling. At the time, it was the first rule to fall short since the early 2000s. 

Now, the count is up to six. Rep. Scott Perry, who voted to sink the rule in January, defended those tactics as necessary when other methods to object to or amend bills are taken away. “You have a limited amount of tools you can use to reflect your viewpoint,” the Pennsylvania Republican said. “The reality is a lot of Washington is about leverage, and if that’s the only leverage you have, then that’s what you have.”

There have been smaller scuttles on the House floor too. Last December, Roy tried to force a motion to adjourn in an effort to block a vote on the National Defense Authorization Act, one of the sweeping pieces of legislation pushed through under suspension of the rules. 

DeLauro laid the blame largely at the feet of the rebellious hard-line Republicans. “I don’t know what’s in his head,” she said of Johnson. “But presumably the speaker would like to use the Rules Committee, but he cannot get it done because you now have a group of folks that are trying to thwart regular order.”

For their part, Freedom Caucus members say intraparty disagreement on the Rules Committee is no excuse for Johnson to turn to the suspension calendar. 

“That is not how a democratic republic is supposed to operate,” said Perry. 

“On major pieces of legislation, what’s lacking then is an adequate debate, and as importantly, amendments that would address the concerns of your constituents,” Perry argued. “America doesn’t get to see the underbelly of any piece of policy.”

Freedom Caucus Chair Bob Good went further, blasting Johnson’s reliance on the procedure as a “surrender” to House Democrats. 

“This is a return to the John Boehner era,” the Virginia Republican lamented. “I’m concerned you will start to hemorrhage support further to the point where you are passing bills with majority Democratic support.” 

That’s precisely what happened last November, when Republican leadership relied on Democrats to provide the majority of votes on a stopgap spending bill. 

Going forward, Good warned that Freedom Caucus members might continue their tactics. The solution, he argued, is for GOP leadership “to start making the bills more palatable for Republicans, with at least some of our priorities or spending cuts, so we don’t have to use suspension of the rules.”

Meanwhile, Democrats on the Rules Committee aren’t too pleased either. 

“The Rules Committee is kind of the traffic cop of Congress,” ranking member Jim McGovern said on the House floor this month. Yet, the Massachusetts Democrat noted, the last time a bill reported out of that committee passed both chambers and was signed into law by the president was nine months ago. 

“What we see now is that the Rules Committee has become irrelevant because the amendments we see are not serious or bipartisan,” said Leger Fernandez. “That is really sad.” 

Quantity and quality 

Concern over the suspension process is not entirely new.

House lawmakers complained about an overreliance on it nearly half a century ago. In 1975, for example, a House Republican Task Force on Reform proposed restrictions on the practice, alleging that some bills “were even cynically brought up under suspension for the very purpose of defeating them,” according to the Congressional Research Service. 

More recently, during the 110th Congress, which began in 2007, more than 1,500 bills came to the House floor under suspension of the rules, according to CRS, making up 71 percent of all bills considered during that term. That number had fallen slightly to 66 percent by the 116th Congress, the most recent analyzed by CRS.

It’s not simply a question of how much legislation is being pushed through that process, but what. 

Historically, the suspension calendar has been used to pass noncontroversial legislation such as a bill renaming a post office or honoring a fallen veteran, explained DeLauro, who observed how the practice has changed over her 33 years in the House. 

And while Democrats used the tactic to pass emergency funding packages, aimed at providing pandemic relief, when they controlled the gavel in 2020, the House has never in modern history used suspension of the rules to pass final full-year appropriations legislation. 

Johnson may be poised to break that precedent. As Congress races against the next funding deadline of March 1, appropriators have signaled that suspension votes seem to be the default option for wrapping up this year’s spending bills.

This report was corrected to reflect the number of stopgap spending bills passed under Johnson.

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