Changes to MTR rules remind us that Congress must ‘recommit’ to serving people over party
In one of its first official acts, the 117th U.S. House of Representatives voted to approve the parliamentary rules that will govern lower chamber proceedings for the next two years. The new rules package contains a number of controversial reforms; chief among them changes to an obscure but important parliamentary procedure known as the motion to recommit, or MTR.
A component of House rules since the 1789 first Congress, the MTR is a procedural tool designed to make last-minute changes to a bill just before the measure’s final up-or-down vote. Pushed through by Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), this reform is likely to be the coup de grâce for floor amendments in the House—a development some Representatives and congressional observers have found troubling.
There are generally two types of MTRs: the rarely utilized “simple” MTR sends the bill back to the reporting committee which, in the words of former Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), “means the bill is dead forever.” Meanwhile, the “amendatory” MTR is the more powerful and frequently employed tool, and is akin to an eleventh-hour amendment to the bill in question. If passed, the amendatory MTR alters the text of the bill, which is subsequently considered on the floor—as amended—for a final passage vote.
Since 1995, House rules have enshrined the minority party’s right to offer both types of MTRs to many of the bills that come to the floor. This means that even when the majority party brings forth measures under rules that prohibit amendments, the right of the minority party to offer an amendment via the MTR cannot be infringed.
While many have hailed the amendatory MTR’s protections as essential for minority party rights and a democratic legislative process, both parties have spent the past two-and-a-half decades exploiting the procedure as a tool of parliamentary and electoral warfare. Instead of using the MTR as an opportunity to improve the quality of legislation for the American people, both minority-party Democrats and Republicans in the lower chamber have instead abused amendatory MTRs by writing “gotcha” amendments intended to force the other party into taking public positions on controversial issues.
For example, last August, in response to concerns about mail-in voting during the COVID-19 pandemic, Democrats put H.R. 8015, the “Delivering for America Act” on the floor. According to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, the bill:
prohibits the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) from making changes to operations or levels of service from those that were in effect on January 1, 2020, establishes requirements for the processing of election mail, and provides additional funding for the Postal Service Fund.
Such provisions were straightforward, but minority Republicans saw the opportunity to play procedural games with an eye to the 2020 elections. Accordingly, Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.) offered an amendatory MTR to the bill that would enact federal penalties for any USPS employee found tampering or interfering with election mail.
On its face, this seemed like a commonsense amendment likely to garner support from most corners of the country and Congress. But, there was a catch: it is already a federal crime to tamper or interfere with any mail. Rep. Comer’s amendatory MTR was therefore not written to improve election security or even substantively to affect the law, but rather to force majority-party Democrats into voting against language on “protecting election mail”—a sound bite that provides prime fodder for GOP advertising and fundraising in an election season.
In response to these abuses, the new rules package strips all explicit protections for the amendatory MTR from chamber rules. This means the Speaker of the House will now be able to draw upon a 1934 precedent to rule any amendatory MTRs as out of order on bills reported with strict amendment prohibitions (which will almost surely include the overwhelming majority of bills considered in the 117th Congress). And, it removes the amendatory protections without actually outlawing or altering the minority’s prerogative regarding the simple MTR.
While this will put an end to minority-party abuse of the MTR, there are larger consequences for the legislative process. In fact, this reform is only one segment of a longer trend in recent congressional history where rank-and-file Members have allocated highly centralized power to party leaders; entrusting them with much of the policy information and creation duties in the House—and this includes largely relinquishing the power to amend legislation on the floor.
In fact, with the replacement of regular order with order by closed rule, amendatory activity has gone nearly extinct on the floor: the percentage of bills considered under amendment restrictions has been steadily rising for the past 100 years, culminating with both former-Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) prohibiting a single open-amendment bill on the floor of the House for the entirety of the 115th and 116th Congresses, respectively.
Now that amendatory MTRs have followed open-amendment bills into oblivion, the opportunities for rank-and-file Members—particularly those in the minority party—to amend legislation on the floor are all but gone. Many see these developments toward a top-down legislative process as anachronistic to a pluralistic, democratic republic. Others, like party leaders (and many rank-and-file Members) will argue that restricting floor amendments is the only way to move legislation and maintain majority status in today’s contentious political environment.
Irrespective of the view one takes on MTR reform and floor amendments, one thing is certain: The House’s continued partisan centralization of power marks a new normal in the policy-making process—the consequences of which are yet unknown for the quality of federal governance and democratic representation. As the new Congress begins its work, it should therefore tread carefully when considering further rules changes. After all, those that may seem advantageous in the short-term may have very different consequences in the future—not just for the political parties but more importantly, for the American people.
Patrick Ramjug is a doctoral student at Duke University conducting research on congressional rules and reforms. Previously, he worked as a campaign finance operative. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.