Update 660 — Rules of Engagement:
Starve the Beast, with an Orwell Nod
On Monday, the House of Representatives adopted the GOP Rules for the 118th Congress. Newly-minted Speaker McCarthy had to make many concessions with the most extreme MAGA members in his conference in exchange for their votes, including creating new oversight committees and spending rules that cut programs for American workers, drop policy landmines on Democratic priorities, and threaten the full faith and credit of the United States.
The new rules are a departure from the Democrat-controlled 117th Congress; the House will be less productive and without critical functions like ethics oversight. Orwell would blush at creating a subcommittee to investigate the weaponization of the federal government. We can look forward to a House delivering showdowns and shutdowns, all of which we will detail in today’s update.
New Year, New Congress, New Rules
The House rules package was enacted on a mostly party-line vote with 220 Republicans voting in favor and one Republican, Rep. Tony Gonzales (R-TX), joining the 212 Democrats to vote against. Several of the new rules change how the House functions, considers legislation, and conducts oversight.
Office of Congressional Oversight
The Office of Congressional Oversight (OCE) is an independent, nonpartisan oversight office that strives to provide accountability in Congress and increase public trust. Instead of empowering OCE to better conduct ethics oversight, the Republican Rules package undermines OCE in two ways:
- A new eight-year term limit will cause three of the four Democrats who currently sit on the eight-member board to vacate their positions immediately. This hinders OCE from conducting balanced investigations and bipartisan votes. It will likely take months to refill these board positions.
- OCE is required to hire its staff for the 118th Congress within 30 days of the adoption of the rule. Without having a full board in place, it will be difficult to hire and assess candidates for these high stakes positions, which will lead to more vacancies on OCE, making it more difficult for the agency to perform its mission.
The new majority seeks to limit the independent oversight arm and empower the more partisan and secretive Committee on Ethics. This will make members of Congress less accountable to the people. The rules also require the Speaker to establish a bipartisan task force to review House ethics and submit a report on improvements.
The Holman rule will be reinstated, which will allow appropriations amendments to reduce federal employees’ salaries, fire targeted federal employees, and cut key programs. This will mostly be a messaging vehicle for agencies Republicans are critical of, like the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice. With a Democratically-controlled Senate, any Holman rule actions may well die in the House.
The rules package delivered key procedural provisions that conservatives have been pushing for quite some time. Last term, the House instituted proxy voting as a safeguard during the coronavirus pandemic. Republicans are doing away with proxy voting, which will require every member to be present for votes in light of the pandemic.
Additionally, lawmakers will now receive the text of any bill at least 72 hours before the vote. This is an effort to increase transparency, so lawmakers know what they’re voting on and constituents can weigh in. Legislation will also have to address a single subject, instead of different unrelated topics, which often obstructs comprehensive reforms.
In a win for congressional workers last year, a resolution was passed allowing congressional staff to unionize and collectively bargain. So far, 14 offices have filed petitions to unionize. The Republican rules are attempting to prevent any future collective bargaining actions. Staff could continue to organize since the language is ambiguous. If the rule change is successful, this action will negatively impact working conditions for congressional staff who already face high turnover due to low pay and long hours.
Motion to Vacate
In one of his main concessions for votes, Speaker McCarthy restored the motion to vacate the chair, with just one member needed to force a floor vote to remove the Speaker. Former Speaker Nancy Pelosi changed the rule in 2019, allowing only a majority of either party to call for a floor vote to oust the Speaker. With today’s radical elements within the Republican caucus, this does not bode well for the tenure of McCarthy’s Speakership.
Committees’ New Commitments
The Rules Committee, which administers the rules package and rules surrounding legislation, will have nine Republican members, three of which will be members of the ultra-conservative freedom caucus, and only four Democratic members. The slight Republican majority and its most extreme members will have an outsized impact on moving legislation to the floor and set the rules for amendments and floor actions. The Ways and Means Committee will be chaired by Rep. Jason Smith and the Financial Services Committee will be chaired by Rep. Patrick McHenry.
The Committee on Oversight and Reform is renamed the Committee on Oversight and Accountability, which will be chaired by Rep. James Comer. While only a technical change, this demonstrates the partisan direction Republicans are hoping to take the committee, holding the Biden administration and Democrats accountable.
The rules also establish a new oversight subcommittee, the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic, which will investigate the origins of the pandemic, its economic impact, government spending and implementation, and vaccine development, among other functions.
A new select subcommittee in Judiciary on the Weaponization of the Federal Government is expected to be chaired by Rep. Jim Jordan. The subcommittee will have subpoena power and collect information about ongoing criminal investigations in the executive branch. This is a huge break with precedent and the legality of accessing this information will likely be disputed in court. The panel will give Jordan and conservative elements within the Republican ranks the power to launch partisan investigations to protect MAGA allies beyond the regular powers of the Judiciary Committee.
Republicans are also creating a new Select Committee on the Strategic Competition Between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party, which will look at U.S.-China relations and study national security threats posed by China.
The new majority is repealing the Select Committee on Economic Disparity and Fairness in Growth, the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, and the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol. This will hinder Congress’ ability to address economic, climate, and democracy reform.
Showdowns and Shutdowns
The package requires the House to vote separately on the 12 funding bills instead of an omnibus package. While more transparent, this could elongate the already difficult appropriations process. Included in the package is a CUTGO rule, which requires mandatory spending increases to be offset only with equal or greater spending decreases. This is replacing the PAYGO rule from the last Congress which required any spending increases to be offset with either cuts in spending or increases in revenues. With CUTGO, Republicans want to seem fiscally conscious, but they still can pass tax cuts that balloon the national debt.
Furthermore, Republicans adopted a rule that would cap spending bills for the next fiscal year at FY 2022 levels, which would cut around $130 billion, or 8 percent of December’s FY 2023 omnibus package. Cuts would likely come from health care and various mandatory programs, hurting already underfunded programs and important social safety nets. House Republicans will have a difficult time reaching an agreement with Senate Democrats who are unlikely to agree to these cuts, leading to a showdown in the fall, or worse a shutdown.
This year, Congress will also have to deal with the debt ceiling since the Treasury is set to run out of borrowing room sometime in early fall. The debt limit is a contentious issue, but the divided Congress will have to address it promptly. Otherwise the United States could receive a downgrade on its credit like the last major debt limit fight in 2011.
House Republicans’ debt ceiling strategy involves cutting spending. They have already alluded to cutting social safety net programs like Social Security and Medicare to lower the U.S. debt. Hurting everyday Americans to reduce government spending would be an unpopular political move for the party, so they’ll likely look for other avenues. While the party might say they are all for fiscal responsibility, the first bill the House passed besides the rules package, the Family and Small Business Taxpayer Protection Act, if enacted with the concurrence of the Senate would increase the deficit by $114 billion.
As this Congress continues for the next two years, the House will operate under the rules negotiated by the extreme conservative wing of the Republican party. There will be no Committee to Investigate Investigations but expect oversight hearings and struggles over government funding. Republicans want more oversight over the Biden administration, but not their own ethics. While the divided Congress was already expected to be unproductive, these rules will diminish critical functions of Congress and committee work. More uncertainty and extremism with the occasion must-pass bills the Senate can work with are the order of the day under the Republican-controlled House.