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- The House just used an open process for amending legislation for the first time in 7 years.
- Democrats proposed nearly 60 amendments to a largely symbolic bill put forward by the GOP.
- The use of the process — a concession from McCarthy to his right flank — has some Democrats excited.
For the first time in nearly seven years, the House of Representatives did something that one might expect it to do on any normal day: engage in a relatively free-form debate over amendments to a major piece of legislation.
On Thursday and Friday of last week, the House used a so-called “open amendment” process to churn through 56 amendments — almost all of which were proposed by Democrats — to a bill teed up by the new Republican majority.
It’s the first time the process, one of the concessions Kevin McCarthy made to the right-flank of his party to secure the House Speaker seat, has been used since May 26, 2016. In the nearly seven years since, under Democratic and Republican speakers, members have essentially been asked to swallow bills put forward by party leadership, or have been allowed to vote on a highly limited number of pre-determined amendments.
“I tend to favor policy and procedural changes that decentralize powers to the members,” said Democratic Rep. Ritchie Torres of New York, who told Insider that he “loved” Republicans’ use of the procedure. “Even a broken clock is right twice a day.”
“I think it was refreshing to be able to offer these kinds of amendments,” said Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, who offered three amendments to the bill and said progressives had long argued for opening up the rules process.
“I mean, I generally favor an open system in Congress,” said Democratic Rep. Joaquin Castro, who also offered an amendment and noted that he used a similar open amendment process as a state legislator. “That’s what I did for 10 years in Texas.”
The return of open amendments
Increasing the use of that process — which allows rank-and-file lawmakers to submit amendments to be voted upon by the whole of the House — was a major part of the Freedom Caucus’s stated agenda.
The potential move towards open amendment votes would represent a sea change from the way that former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi ran the institution over the last four years.
A recent analysis by the Bipartisan Policy Center shows that the number of so-called “open rules” dropped to zero under her tenure, frustrating more junior members in particular by offering them less input into the legislative process.
But in interviews with Insider this week, Democrats also expressed skepticism that the use of open rules would be more than a one-time thing; the open rules that the chamber utilized last week were provided for as part of the House GOP’s rules package.
“We’ll see how long this lasts,” said Democratic Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California, a long-time ally of Pelosi. “If they start losing on a bunch of amendments, they will reconsider.”
And they pointed out that the current divided government, in which bills passed in a Republican-led House generally stand little chance in the Democratic-led Senate, lowers the stakes of amendments.
“I think one reason that the Republican majority is willing to do this is because they know that none of the bills they pass will actually become law,” said Democratic Rep. Ted Lieu of California, who nonetheless said he was “pleased” to offer a “great” amendment last week.
The House was voting on the Strategic Production Response Act, a Republican-proposed bill that would limit President Joe Biden’s ability to tap the strategic petroleum reserve without drawing up plans to increase the amount of public land available for oil and gas drilling.
It was essentially a conservative messaging bill. Just one House Democrat voted for it, Biden has threatened to veto it, and it faces no chance in the Democratic-controlled Senate. Nonetheless, Democrats proposed scores of amendments, and Rep. Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey managed to get a couple passed, even as he voted against the final bill.
Rep. Abigail Spanberger introduced an amendment to exclude Virginia’s coastline from the bill.
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“There’s an element of like, ‘This has all been messaging,'” said Democratic Rep. Abigail Spanberger of Virginia, noting the bill’s dim chances in the Senate. “But I do think that the basic premise of trying to make a bad bill less bad is important.”
Spanberger herself had fun with open amendments, submitting one that would exclude drilling from areas offshore because the GOP majority was “looking to destroy Virginia’s beautiful coastline.” It failed along party lines.
‘Every rule can’t be open’
Going forward, it will be up to the House Rules Committee, which has historically been controlled by allies of the Speaker, to determine how often floor amendments will be allowed.
And proponents of open rules may have some cause for hope — yet another concession made by McCarthy was the seating of hardline Republican Reps. Chip Roy of Texas, Ralph Norman of South Carolina, and Thomas Massie of Kentucky on the committee.
Roy in particular has been a vocal proponent of opening up the process, telling Insider that he would be a “voice” for open rules on the committee but “not a blind one.”
Spanberger credited Roy — who she considers to be a friend — for the increased use of the process, noting that it “certainly wasn’t the speaker’s intention or desire” to allow for more open amendments.
“Now look, every rule can’t be open,” said Roy, arguing that some bills were simple enough to keep the rules closed. He also indicated that he would be somewhat deferential to McCarthy and the House Republicans’ agenda while the Congress took its “training wheels off,” given that it’s been years since amendments have been offered on the floor.
And though Republicans managed to crank through nearly 60 amendment votes in just a couple of hours last week, giving members just two minutes to vote on each, timeliness will continue to be important.
“I guess the question is: How do you balance it with time?” said Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna of California, who said he generally favors an open process. “Maybe those things will self-regulate when the novelty wears off.”