During the Republican retreat two weeks ago Speaker Ryan doubled down on his commitment open the process in the House. The original pledge was offered to satisfy conservative members’ desire for greater input and influence. Anyone with a deliberative-democratic bone in their body should welcome this change and the pledge. However, it comes with some major risks. And if history is any sort of guide, this commitment may be short lived. The tweaks to the Republican Steering Committee haven’t changed much in the House. House majority leaders still control the process. Any bill of consequence will need to go through the Rules Committee, which is still firmly in the hands of Speaker Ryan. This means the Speaker is voluntarily opening the process to his rank-in-file and the minority for amendment, deliberation, etc.
In the past these types of voluntary commitments have had a limited shelf life. Since the reforms of 1975, restrictive rules – that limit opportunities to amend legislation on the floor – have been the norm. The speaker puts a bill under a process that prohibits members (either totally or in part) from amending its language. Members can only vote for or against the bill. Restrictive rules were used a whopping 92% of the time in the 113th Congress. That’s down from the record high of 98% in the 111th, but dramatically up from previous Congresses. For example, restrictive rules were used 75% of the time in the 108th, 55% of the time in the 101st, and only 16% of the time in the 95th Congresses.
Leaders use restrictive rules for a variety of reasons. But one of the most important reasons is to limit minority party mischief. When in the minority, both Democrats and Republicans have used open rules to disrupt policymaking. They intentionally offer amendments to drive wedges in the majority party coalition, making final passage of the bill difficult or impossible.
In the late-1980s, Republicans became a very effective opposition by offering amendments that undermined policy on the floor. Democrats responded by increasingly closing opportunities for amendment. Republicans retook the majority in 1995 promising to achieve what Democrats couldn't: more open debate and amendments for the rank-and-file. Democrats reacted predictably, offering hundreds of political amendments that undermined the new majority’s bills. Republicans leaders reigned in their commitment to an open process just a few months after taking office.
Polarization and partisan warfare have undermined serious efforts to reopen or maintain amending processes in the House and Senate. This week the Senate is struggling to pass an energy bill through a maze of amendments ranging from small adjustments to charged language relating to the Flint water crisis.
Given the polarized environment of the House, if Speaker Ryan wants to keep his pledge to open the process he may also need to commit to failing. An open process will undoubtedly force votes that many of his members would rather not see on the House floor. It’s downright likely that an open process will cost the majority some major policy victories at the expense of more deliberation. Given the size and safety of the House majority, Ryan has some freedom to take these hits and retain the majority. However, Speaker Ryan’s commitment to open deliberation will likely come at a cost that include policy wins and possibly seats in the House.
Previous leaders changed course after flirting with open procedures. A couple months of costly political votes were enough to renege on their promises. The extent the process is opened, or remains open, in 2016 will depend on how much risk Speaker Ryan and his colleagues are willing to shoulder. That willingness will be closely tied to the number of vulnerable Republican seats and presidential odds in 2016.