Why Pelosi Doesn’t Want to Change The Rules to Help House Democrats
A little-known procedural tool called the “motion to recommit” is suddenly all over the news. This is because House Republicans have successfully used the motion twice this year to force politically tough votes on their Democratic colleagues. Now, Democrats are discussing changing the House rules to either modify these motions or get rid of them altogether.
Neither will happen. Why? Because it’s not in Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s political interest to restrict or do away with motions to recommit. Hanging onto the carrots and sticks she wields for keeping her members in line is well worth the heartburn she’ll endure over procedural chicanery.
In a majoritarian institution like the House, the motion to recommit is one of the only procedural tools the minority can use to alter legislation before final passage. The motion is offered just before the House votes and, today, either sends the bill back to committee (effectively killing it) or amends the bill before a vote on final passage. If the motion passes, the bill is either killed or passed as amended. If the motion fails, the House moves to vote on final passage of the (unamended) bill.
Because Republicans hold 197 of the House’s 432 occupied seats (there are currently 3 vacancies), they need to convince at least 20 Democrats to cross the aisle for their motions to succeed. Of the 15 motions they’ve offered so far this year, two have passed: One added language condemning anti-Semitism to a resolution reducing U.S. involvement in Yemen, and one altered a bill on expanded background checks to require that the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency be notified if an illegal immigrant attempts to buy a gun.
Many House Democrats view these motions as nothing more than procedural attempts to splinter the caucus. For this reason, Pelosi argues that all Democrats should vote “no” on all motions to recommit. “We are either a team or we’re not,” she bluntly told her members at last week’s caucus meeting.
But for those Democrats representing Republican-leaning districts, the choice isn’t so easy. Voting “no” on some motions may very well hurt them back home. Making matters even more challenging for Pelosi, her long-term lieutenants — Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., and Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, D-S.C. — are sympathetic to the party’s moderates and have suggested that these members be allowed to vote with the Republicans if it will help them politically.
It’s more complicated for Democrats than it was for their Republican colleagues when they controlled the House. Republicans most recently held the majority from 2010 through 2018 and not once during that eight-year period did Democrats pass a motion to recommit. Republicans treated every motion as a procedural vote and consistently unified in opposition.
There are also fewer moderates on the Republican side for Democrats to pick off. Democrats, by contrast, are more ideologically diverse. They picked up 40 seats in the 2018 midterms, 31 of which were districts Trump won in 2016. Progressives have attracted most of the media attention, but moderates were the majority-makers in 2018, just as they were in 2006.
So why doesn’t Pelosi want her members to vote their districts, or at least change the rules so they don’t have to take tough votes on the Republicans’ “gotcha” motions?
For one, many Democrats have served in the minority and thus understand the importance of protecting minority rights in the chamber.
More importantly, Pelosi’s strength as speaker depends on her ability to keep her members in line. If members are allowed to act independently, the party fractures and her leadership is called into question. Her power to reward and punish matters as long as members accept that she controls their ability to be effective policymakers via her control over leadership, committee assignments and the legislative agenda.
Giving up her ability to exercise threats and punish members who don’t follow her lead is akin to giving up control — something she is loath to do.
Pelosi essentially confirmed that she doesn’t want to change the rules when she suggested that the issue be taken up by the newly formed select committee on modernizing Congress. Any recommendation made by the bipartisan committee must have the support of two-thirds of its members. As Pelosi well knows, Republicans committee members are not going to support any proposal that limits the minority’s powers.
If she can persuade her caucus to treat motions to recommit as purely procedural, she’s won this battle. Whether her moderate majority-makers can hold onto their seats in a leadership-dominated House is another question.
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