Pelosi Goes Through The Motions
The opening of the 111th Congress is, as always, accompanied by the typical minutiae of opening a new session of Congress. Most of these events aren’t too terribly interesting to the public, although the events surrounding the Minnesota and Illinois seats have raised the profile of the opening of the Senate.
By contrast the opening of the House of Representatives has been comparatively low-key, but the package of proposed rules changes in the House is noteworthy nonetheless. In addition to abolishing the term limits on committee chairs that Republicans imposed as part of the 1995 rules changes that accompanied their takeover of the House — a largely symbolic measure that, if anything, increased the power of the majority party leadership in the House at the expense of the committee system — Democrats are also proposing a more insidious change to abolish an obscure, but important, bit of parliamentary procedure, the motion to recommit with instructions.
Princeton political scientist Nolan McCarty describes the effect of this rule:
[T]he motion to recommit (MTR) is provides an important opportunity for the minority party to participate meaningfully in the legislative process. Essentially, when a bill is passed, any opponent may make a motion to send the bill back to committee with some suggested amendments. But because the language of the motion may require the committee “to report forthwith,” the MTR is essentially an opportunity for the minority to offer substantive amendments (but ones that may be again amended by the majority). So even if the Rule Committees [sic] doesn’t allow it to offer any formal amendments to the legislation, the minority will still have an opportunity to at least force a vote on one of its amendments, presumably one with the greatest importance and/or chance of peeling off enough moderate majority-party voters for passage. Even though few MTRs pass, the threat that they might pass or at least force some unpopular votes generates some leverage for the views of the minority party.
Given majority-party control of the House, however, the real effect is not so much to diminish the power of the GOP — who would be unable to sustain a motion to recommit on their own — but to weaken moderates within the majority party; as McCarty points out, the motion to recommit with instructions “giv[es] them a credible threat to vote with the minority on the MTR if their concerns are not addressed in the bill.” These votes also have an important symbolic role for moderates; even if the motion does not pass, they can point to these votes and argue to their constituents (many of whom are not natural supporters of the majority party) when seeking reelection that they tried to rein in the excesses of the majority.
While the Democratic majority may find that the rules change is, over the short term, to their advantage in passing a few controversial bills, the medium to long-term effect may be to promote the erosion of their majority.