WASHINGTON — On the floor above the House chamber sits a suite of offices where lawmakers toil at late hours, often with barely any notice, to get bills ready for floor votes. An obscure office to most of the country, it is now one of the most consequential bargaining chips in the drawn-out battle for speaker.
Even in Washington, the Rules Committee is one of the lower-profile committees, yet it’s one of the most important. As Representative Kevin McCarthy of California labored through his third day attempting to become speaker, one of the demands he is weighing from the far right flank of the Republican Party is a request for four seats on the committee.
It’s a request that has been overshadowed by other possible concessions, such as allowing any member of the House to call for a vote of no confidence in the speaker at any time. But it’s the Rules Committee seats that could have the most impact on House function and the speaker’s power.
“I always say, it’s the most powerful committee that a lot of people don’t know anything about,” said Worcester Representative Jim McGovern, the top Democrat on Rules and its most recent chair.
The committee is a unique entity in the House, often referred to as the chamber’s traffic cop or the speaker’s committee. Before any legislation can hit the floor, the committee constructs a rule to govern debate, approves amendments for votes, and shapes the legislation into its final form.
Representative Pete Sessions, a Texas Republican and a former chairman of the committee, noted that a single punctuation mark change can have a dramatic effect on law, a significant responsibility for the committee.
“As chairman of the Rules Committee, more than once I changed a word from ‘shall’ to ‘shall not,’ ” Sessions said. “A comma and verbiage changes law.”
It also is stacked for the majority party, nine members to four for the minority. Unlike most other committees, members are selected directly by the speaker and minority leader. If four of those majority members were to belong to a rebellious faction, however, it could throw every one of the speaker’s priorities in doubt, being enough to scuttle any majority plans if Democrats join in opposition.
Those four seats are reportedly one of the asks of McCarthy’s holdouts, including the right to hand pick the four members.
During one floor speech Thursday, one of McCarthy’s detractors, Representative Matt Rosendale of Montana, referenced the concentration of power at the Rules Committee, decrying a “dramatically broken” Congress that has “diminished” the voices of individual lawmakers.
“This through the consolidation of power into the hands of the speaker and a fortunate few who happen to serve on the Rules Committee, which control every aspect of legislation that travels through this body,” Rosendale said.
McGovern said he understood why the group would be targeting the committee, suspecting that it is to ensure that even if McCarthy or someone else wins the speakership, the speaker will have little to show for it.
“They want to be able to control McCarthy from every which way,” McGovern said. “They’re seeking to try to gain footholds and power every which way they can. . . . What they’re doing is they’re making him make concessions so that he can’t possibly be an effective speaker.”
In ever-changing negotiations, McCarthy has reportedly agreed to give the right-wing House Freedom Caucus three of the majority’s seats on the panel, a significant concession — if the full Republican caucus would support him.
More moderate and mainstream Republican lawmakers said some representation for the Freedom Caucus is reasonable. But they expressed concern about giving the 40-some-member group power that exceeded their representation among the 222 Republicans in the House, including picking their own for membership.
“I think that’s a red line,” said Florida Representative Mario Diaz-Balart. “If you’re going to give one [committee seat] to any group, you have to give it to all of the other large groups.”
He was echoed by Representative Don Bacon of Nebraska.
“We’re not going to do affirmative action for the smallest caucus,” Bacon said. “You’ve got to earn it by merit.”
Jo Maney, a PR principal at BGR who is a former Republican staffer for the Rules Committee, said members have to be prepared for a slog, including suddenly scheduled hearings at odd hours and lots of tough votes. She called it “a risk” for the speaker to have wild cards in seats that may not be prepared for such demands.
Sessions said the committee’s job is to “always work what is in the best interest of the majority,” and historically it has had membership to ensure representation of a wide swath of interests, for example, by giving each region of the country roughly equal seats.
“The opportunity to control that [interest], which is what four of the nine would help do, would allow anyone to sway what the majority is,” Sessions said.
He said a speaker should think carefully about whom they give a spot on the committee.
“As long as its representation would be that of the entire conference, it would be permissible,” Sessions said. “If it is there to achieve a specific outcome, it would be unwise.”