COMPASS: The House’s Long, Strange Trip

April 23rd, 2024

Good afternoon from Washington.

What a long, strange trip it’s been.

In the week since we last met:

  1. House precedent was shattered when a Republican Speaker relied on the votes of a Democratic minority to pass a rule through the highly partisan House Rules Committee. 
  1. That minority then carried that rule to passage on the House floor, while 55 members of the GOP majority voted against it, rebuking their leadership. 
  1. A foreign flag was waved on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives – along with shouts of a foreign national salute – upon passage of $60 billion in more aid to Ukraine.

Why does all of this matter? Let’s begin with the House Rules Committee. Formed in 1789, the Rules Committee is the oldest standing committee in the House. It has a unique and specific function to the institution: before any bills come to the House floor, they must first receive consideration by the Rules Committee, which is tasked with structuring the form and nature of deliberation around the bill (in other words, setting up the “rules” of debate). For this reason, it is colloquially known as “the Speaker’s committee” given that its historical role has been to enforce the will of the majority onto the structure of legislative passage. 

For this reason, its nature is highly partisan. The rules of the House are set up such that the majority can quickly and easily work its will with only minor input from the minority, and the Rules Committee is the purest expression of this. The majority always supports its party’s rule. The minority always opposes it. This is true both in committee and on the House floor.

Until last week. On Thursday, the Rules Committee considered the rule to set up a MIRV (see last week’s Compass to explain what the heck that is) to pass further funding for Ukraine, funding to Israel and Taiwan, and another grab-bag package that included the REPO Act and the TikTok forced divestment bill. The rule was reported out 9 to 3. Due to the nay votes of Reps Chip Roy, Ralph Norman, and Thomas Massie, more Democrats supported the rule than Republicans. This represents the first time since the Rules Committee began recording votes in 1995 that a House minority has passed a House majority’s rule. In other words, the House Democrats were more favorable to the Republican Speaker’s legislation than the House Republican majority.

On the floor, 55 Republicans voted against the rule, an almost unheard of number for a majority party. In total, the rule passed with 165 Democrat votes, and 151 Republican votes – again, more Democrats supporting the Republican Speaker than Republicans. The same was true for the Ukraine title of the bill, when it received its vote – 210 Democrats supported it to 101 Republicans. 

When the Chair announced its passage, House Democrats could be seen waving Ukrainian flags and shouting “slava Ukraini” (glory to Ukraine). 

All of this has left conservatives disappointed with the Republican House majority.

Last month the House passed appropriations legislation at spending levels negotiated by former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, and which contained federally funded earmarks for a late term abortion clinic and transgender services to children. The House then defeated legislation requiring the FBI to obtain a warrant before parsing the emails, texts, and phone calls of American citizens. 

House Leadership had publicly committed to making border security the “hill to die on” in exchange for considering Ukraine funding. And yet the package brought to the floor last week did not contain any policy related to the US border. There was a border security vote taken, but it was held as a separate vote on the suspension calendar – requiring 290 votes to pass (as opposed to the usual 218) and was soundly defeated by Democrats. 

In another curious twist, the House rule structured the foreign aid package to be sent to the Senate in a procedural manner which virtually eliminates the ability of Senate conservatives to amend or even delay consideration of the bill. Because of this, the Democrat-majority Senate is poised to take up the bill today and pass it without any changes shortly thereafter.

These actions over the last week have left House conservatives irate and, due to the motion to vacate filed by Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, the Speaker’s fate is uncertain. Some in the conservative movement, however, question the fury aimed at Mike Johnson, noting his small vote margin and the difficulties presented in managing a rowdy conference. 

The conservative movement has never expected our leaders to win in every circumstance, however. What we have always expected, as we do now, is for our leaders to at least try; to survey the field, marshall the troops, and lead them into battle to defend the principles we have held for generations. But when the practice of House Leadership is to concede to the minority’s demands from the outset and declare it “impractical” to try and change that status quo, they leave the conservative movement with very little to defend.

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