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House of Representatives rules that need changing

The House of Representatives operates under a set of rules that they vote on at the beginning of each Congress. Some of those rules make it harder to pass progressive legislation. Most provisions of the package of rules that the House will pass are relatively non-controversial and set the requirements for things like the congressional schedule, how Congress will keep records, and how Members of Congress can use their office funds. However, there are two provisions that present a barrier to progressive legislation: the “Motion to Recommit” (or “MTR”) and the “Pay as You Go rule” (or “PayGo”).

The Motion to Recommit

The Motion to Recommit gives the minority party a last-minute chance to attach a poison pill amendment or force a controversial vote in the minutes before a bill is voted on for final passage. Instead of using the MTR as a way to improve bills, Republicans have weaponized them as a way to introduce “gotcha” amendments that are kept secret until minutes before they are voted on. Unfortunately some Democrats have fallen for this trap, and allowed Republicans to divide Democrats and endanger popular bills. For more information on the MTR, see our explainer here. 

The PayGo Rule

PayGo is a budget rule that blocks any new spending unless it is “paid for” at the same time by reducing spending elsewhere or raising taxes. This effectively prohibits bold, progressive legislation that would deliver resources to those who need it most. Especially during a pandemic and economic crisis, it is crucial for the government to spend public funds to address problems collectively. Concerns about the deficit should not be taken seriously, because deficit spending is actually exactly what is required to pull our economy back from the brink and begin to unrig the inequalities built into the system. Even worse, PayGo is often used as a cudgel by Democratic leadership who simply oppose certain popular progressive priorities, but need an excuse to prevent them from getting a vote. 

Republicans Got Rid of PayGo. Why did Democrats Bring it Back?

When Republicans took the House in 2011, it was their turn to write the rules package. One of the first things they did was to eliminate PayGo, because it would have prevented them from passing the massive tax cuts for the rich and big corporations that they wanted so badly. This was just another example of the right-wing argument about “fiscal responsibility” being a charade that Republicans only put on when Democrats are in charge.

But when Nancy Pelosi regained the speaker’s gavel in 2018, she insisted on bringing the PayGo rule back over the objections of progressives in the House. This did not magically make Republicans stop whining about the deficit or inspire a bipartisan consensus on raising taxes on the wealthy to pay for important public programs. Now, Democrats have an opportunity to correct this mistake and eliminate PayGo.

Congressional Democrats Can Change The Rules

The good news is the House has a chance to change the rules at the start of the new Congress. Negotiations have already begun over the rules package that will be voted on in early January. Now is the opportunity for progressives to make their voices heard and demand that the House remove arbitrary limits on their own ability to pass good policy. House Democrats should prioritize working with President Biden to pass the boldest possible legislation, which means they should not be constrained by the needless PayGo rule, or by allowing the Republican minority to keep using bad faith MTRs to undermine Democratic bills. 

How the new rules will be decided

Even though new members will not be sworn in until January 3, 2020,  House Democrats have already started forming the new rules package that will govern the 117th Congress. Most, if not all, of the decisions will be made in November and December, so now is the time to make needed changes. 

Unfortunately, progressives aren’t the only people who want changes. Corporate interests and conservative Democrats are already working to hamstring the progressive agenda by keeping these harmful rules. They’re even trying to create new rules that would fast-track right-wing legislation, while bogging down progressive bills with more procedural hurdles. 

What Can You do to Get Rid of PayGo and the MTR?

Make your member of congress listen to you! The House rules package does not receive much national attention from the press—and that gives you an opportunity to play a big role. If you are represented by a Democrat in the House, you can ensure they know you’re paying attention to this normally under-the-radar vote and that you expect them to vote the right way.