Closing Rules and Opening Wallets

Rules CommitteeDana Milbank’s recent article on the record number of “closed rules” approved by the Republican-led House leaves out one important factor: fundraising. The House Rules Committee is one of the chamber’s most powerful committees as it sets the parameters for floor debate. The committee determines how long each bill will be debated on the House floor, whether amendments will be allowed, and which amendments will be made in order. As Milbank notes, closed rules limit debate time and prevent members from offering amendments on the House floor. Rules Committee members are appointed by party leaders, so it is safe to assume that Speaker Boehner is calling the shots on what form the rules for floor debate take.

Put simply, closed rules provide the majority party with a means for controlling outcomes. If Republican leaders want to prevent members from offering “killer amendments,” they can close the rules to ensure that the bill on which members vote is the same bill that was brought to the floor for debate. Milbank suggests that the record-breaking use of closed rules is yet another sign of “the fierce partisanship that has seized the country.” He’s right, in that neither party trusts the other to “play nice” and offer only good-faith amendments. Why would the majority party risk losing control over a bill’s content, and thus its fate, on the House floor?

The minority party in the House always complains about the majority’s abuse of closed rules. And minority party members always pledge to open up the rules if they win majority control. Letting the House work its will, fair and open debate, and “may the best argument win” all sound good in theory, but rarely work in practice—especially when the chamber is as partisan as it is today. Both parties routinely complain about the rules when in the minority, and routinely close the rules when in the majority.

So what does this have to do with fundraising? When the rules are open, there is far less predictability in schedule. Members are unsure how long debates will last, what amendments will be offered, and when they’ll have to vote. This uncertainty makes it difficult for members to know when they have to be on the floor for votes. And because the policy debate can change direction at any time under open rules, members do not know in advance if and when they will want or need to be on the floor to participate.

Following the 1994 Republican Revolution, Speaker Newt Gingrich almost immediately broke his pledge to bring bills to the floor under open rules. A member who was part of the Republican leadership team during the 1990s told me that Gingrich’s decision to close rules had less to do with controlling the debate than it did with controlling the schedule. Gingrich believed that fundraising was key to maintaining the majority and he wanted Republican members to have time to dial-for-dollars and attend fundraising events. Closed rules were necessary to establish a predictable schedule for members to raise money for themselves and their party.

Flash forward 20 years. The average cost of winning a House seat is just over $1.5 million. Members are expected to raise money not only for their own campaigns, but for the party and for their at-risk colleagues. Newly elected members are advised to carve four hours out of each day for fundraising. Given the demands of the permanent campaign, the increased use of closed rules reflects an attempt to not only control policy outcomes, but electoral outcomes as well. It is yet another example of how the need to raise money has altered the policymaking process in the House.

Marian Currinder is Senior Fellow and Curriculum Chair at the Government Affairs Institute

All Posts | @govaffairsinst