On January 4, 2021, the narrowed Democratic majority in the House of Representatives passed, in a party-line vote, a set of rules governing the House for the 117th Congress. While the House, unlike the Senate, has to approve its rules every Congress, the rules stay generally consistent from Congress-to-Congress, with more significant amendments often coming with changed majorities. While Democrats maintain the majority this Congress, the rules package contains some relatively meaningful changes . The revisions include a broad exemption to the pay-as-you-go (“PAYGO”) budgetary rules, less restrictive reconciliation authority, and a narrowed ability for the Republican minority to offer motions to recommit.
House PAYGO rules require that measures decreasing revenue or increasing mandatory spending be offset by cuts to spending or increases in revenue, that is, tax increases. The rules for the 117th Congress give the House Budget Committee chair authority to waive PAYGO for measures responding to the COVID-19 pandemic or climate change. The statutory PAYGO scheme is unaffected. Even before the amendment to the House PAYGO rules, they could be waived by a House vote; contained several key exemptions, including for emergency spending; and did not apply to discretionary spending. These exceptions to PAYGO in the House remain, and the added exemptions to the PAYGO rule simplify House consideration of measures related to COVID-19 and climate change.
The Congressional Budget Act of 1974 sets out the “reconciliation” process, which provides for expedited procedures for consideration of certain measures affecting revenue or spending. The benefit of reconciliation is in the Senate, where reconciliation measures cannot be filibustered, essentially reducing the threshold for passage from 60 votes to a simple majority.
House rules previously dictated that budget resolutions could not cause an increase net mandatory spending over the ten-year budget window. The new rules allow budget resolutions to increase overall mandatory spending as long as the increased spending is offset with tax increases.
With the Democrats holding the Senate majority only by the future tie-breaking vote of the incoming vice president, reconciliation is expected to have a significant role this Congress. Although the House rules change may increase flexibility for House consideration of reconciliation measures, those measures in the Senate are subject to the Byrd Rule, which, among other things, prohibits budget resolutions from increasing the deficit in fiscal years not covered by the resolution.
Narrowed Motion to Recommit
The motion to recommit allows a member opposed to a bill to offer a motion before a vote on final passage to send the bill back to committee. Since the 111th Congress, there have been two options for motions to recommit: a motion instructing a committee to report the bill forthwith with specified changes (essentially an immediate amendment) and a motion without instructions sending the bill back to committee (essentially forestalling the vote on final passage). The motion to recommit is one of the few procedural tools available to the House minority, which usually uses the motion to force the majority to take politically difficult votes. The new rules allow only motions to recommit without instructions, which essentially turns it into another up-or-down vote on passage.
The rules extend the authorization for proxy voting on the House floor and remote committee proceedings in light of the continuing COVID-19 pandemic. The new rules also add to procedural prerequisites for measures to be considered on the House floor, including by requiring that most bills considered under a rule have a hearing and markup first.