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Playing by House rules

The Freedom Caucus offers up change to House procedure and a dilemma for Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy


House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy Associated Press/Photo by J. Scott Applewhite

Playing by House rules

WASHINGTON—Jim Curry, a former fellow with the House Appropriations Committee, remembers setting up a subcommittee legislative review meeting in 2007, thinking it would initiate a robust examination of the bill. But to his surprise, the review was over almost as soon as it began.

“We gave them an hour to look at the copy and then leave,” said Curry, who is now director of graduate studies in political science at the University of Utah. “My job was to make sure no one snuck out of the room with a copy of the bill—that really sparked my interest: Why is there so much centralization of authority and decision-making in the House leadership?”

The House Freedom Caucus, a group of 42 conservative Republican legislators, is now asking the same question. Earlier this year, the group offered nine proposals to change the operating rules of the House of Representatives and the House Republican Conference. The nine proposals would distribute influence to legislators outside party leadership in the next Congress.

“The leaders of both political parties have consolidated so much power that most members of Congress have no meaningful role in the legislative process beyond voting up or down,” the caucus said in a statement voicing frustration with the current situation.

Now, with the vote for House speaker rapidly approaching in January, the Freedom Caucus is pressuring House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., to implement some of its proposed changes. The changes present a dilemma for McCarthy: He needs the support of the Freedom Caucus to win the vote for speaker, but if he agrees to the caucus’s demands, he could find himself with less ability to lead in the upcoming legislative session.

The House rules aren’t laws. But they do dictate how the House of Representatives works procedurally, shaping the balance of power in the chamber. And, with a majority vote, they can be changed at the start of a new Congress. Curry explained that the contents of the bill, the negotiations that go on in the background, and the timing of when a bill is introduced are almost always up to the leadership of whichever party has a majority.

“Rules that are more centralized in the hands of leadership take away from the influence that a faction—like a Freedom Caucus—can have. They have fewer opportunities to object, obstruct, shape things,” Curry said.

Many of the proposals by the Freedom Caucus attempt to undo aspects of that control, especially when it comes to committees. One proposal, for instance, looks to diversify the critical House Steering Committee, the body that makes virtually all committee assignment decisions. The Freedom Caucus says close allies of the speaker and party leadership dominate the committee. The caucus also wants a mandatory five-day legislative review period before a bill can reach the floor for a vote, an increase from the current 72-hour window. And the caucus also wants committee chairs selected by members of the committee—not on the basis of party loyalty.

Curry believes some of the proposed changes are possible and might have happened even without the caucus’ pressure on McCarthy. But he warned that diversifying power away from centralized leadership can be a double-edged sword. It could cause party infighting and chaos in coordinating efforts. Additionally, any influence given to caucuses would also apply to groups of legislators on the other side of the aisle. That could mean Democrats would have more say in tight votes.

“It would essentially allow the minority party to force the majority to be unable to pass things expediently. It seems like an unintended consequence if you’re the House Freedom Caucus,” Curry said.

McCarthy needs 218 votes to become the speaker. Republicans have 221 seats. If no candidate reaches 218 votes, the vote is recast until a speaker is decided—something that hasn’t happened since 1923.

Despite the numbers, McCarthy remains far and above the favorite to win the speakership when Congress convenes in January. He already won the role of Republican leader, beating out challenger Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., in a Nov. 15 House Republican Conference vote. Typically, the party leader becomes the party’s candidate for speaker, and members of that party are expected to vote for said candidate.

If the Freedom Caucus continues to apply pressure and raise frustrations about his leadership, Curry believes at least some proposals are likely to become reality.

“My best guess is that McCarthy will accept the low-hanging fruit … but I also imagine he will avoid some of these more extreme changes. I think those bigger things are where he will push back pretty hard,” Curry said.

The Freedom Caucus has not said what candidate, if any, it might support in McCarthy’s stead.


Leo Briceno

Leo is a graduate of Patrick Henry College. He reports on politics from Washington, D.C.

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