Ryan breaks record for shutting down floor debate
Paul Ryan vowed an end to the much-despised top-down approach of his predecessor when he took the speaker’s gavel in 2015, promising a House that’s “more open, more inclusive, more deliberative, more participatory.”
“We’re not going to bottle up the process so much and predetermine the outcome of everything around here,” he said in his first news conference as speaker.
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But two years later, the House Rules Committee, which is controlled by the speaker, just set a record for the most closed rules in a session — barring lawmakers for the 49th time from offering amendments on a bill.
Ryan has yet to allow a single piece of legislation to be governed by an open rule, which allows members to propose changes on the floor.
That makes Ryan the only speaker in modern history to forgo the open process entirely so far, according to senior House Democratic sources. They argue such a strategy — while politically expedient for Republicans eager to avoid toxic and divisive votes — is bad for democracy because it stifles debate.
“The Republican Majority has now made history for all the wrong reasons,” said House Rules Committee ranking Democrat Louise Slaughter of New York in a statement Tuesday. “Under Speaker Ryan’s leadership, this session of Congress has now become the most closed Congress in history.”
Michigan Republican Justin Amash, a process stickler and one of the most conservative members of the House, agreed, arguing in an interview Tuesday that Ryan has not lived up to his promise.
“When we offer amendments, they have to be approved by leadership before we get a vote on them and that’s not how our system is supposed to work,” he said. “Our system was designed to reflect the will of the people… And the speaker’s job is to ensure the system is open and [lawmakers] are given a fair opportunity to present their amendments.”
He later added: “Right now that’s really broken and it seems to me that people in power here prefer a system where you have as few votes as possible and you attach everything to one or two votes and then everyone has the excuse that they had to vote for it because it has everything in it.”
Asked about the matter during a news conference Tuesday morning, Ryan denied that assessment and noted more bills have passed through committees this Congress than under Presidents Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and both Bushes — though not all of those have received floor consideration or passed the House.
“We absolutely have an open process,” Ryan told reporters. “We’re going through the committee process. All these bills are going through the committee.”
According to statistics compiled by House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s office, Republican panels have marked up 449 bills under President Donald Trump so far compared to 410 under Obama, 249 under George W. Bush, 260 under Clinton and 313 under George H.W. Bush. A House GOP Rules Committee source also notes that they’ve allowed 864 amendments on the floor this Congress, which is more than the 778 amendments Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) allowed when she held the gavel in the 111th Congress.
On Monday night, the House Rules Committee approved its 49th closed rule this year, the new record for a session. The result is that more than 1,300 amendments also have been blocked from consideration.
Democrats — and Republican proponents of open rules — argue that shutting out input from lawmakers leads to worse policy because it keeps ideas from being considered in the light of day.
One amendment that Democrats say merited a floor debate, but was sidelined by GOP leaders, was a bipartisan proposal to phase out the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force, a hot topic following the Niger ambush that left four U.S. soldiers dead and many Americans wondering about the sprawl of the U.S. military abroad.
That bipartisan amendment, blocked from being offered to a spending bill for Defense and Homeland Security agencies, had support from veteran Republican lawmakers.
Others rejected amendments have been less explosive. Democrats were unimpressed, for example, when Republicans blocked a series of amendments from Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) on whistleblowing protections, which they argue were absolutely germane and relevant to the whistleblower bill at hand.
“Open process my foot,” Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) said, responding on the House floor to Ryan’s Tuesday comments. “I guess in the age of Donald Trump words simply don’t matter anymore. Black is white. Up is down. Open is closed. And politicians can say whatever they think sounds good and think they can get away with it — facts be damned.”