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In the U.S. House, the Rules Committee is an influential if little understood power player on Capitol Hill, providing its members with the clout to shape headline-making legislation and policy debates.
The Rules Committee is so important that Republicans, who hold 51% of the seats in the U.S. House, occupy nine of the committee’s 13 seats, or just under 70%.
Operating as a supermajority — typical for the party in power — gives Republicans outsized influence for a committee that sets the terms of floor debate and determines what amendments can be voted upon for major legislation.
But this year’s version of the committee is different because of the noticeable impact of three far-right conservatives — including U.S. Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas — whose membership was negotiated as part of the deal to make Kevin McCarthy speaker of the House in January.
Nothing displayed the new power dynamic more than when Roy helped convert the annual defense policy bill into a partisan vehicle for conservative priorities on abortion, climate change and diversity programs.
Roy was initially wary of joining the committee, knowing it would mean spending more time in Washington, slogging through late nights and long meetings.
The tradeoff was more power to affect legislation and achieve important policy goals, he said.
“I’m able to provide a perspective that matters,” he said.
When the House took up the National Defense Authorization Act in mid-July, Roy and two other ultraconservatives on the committee used their positions to push for floor votes on a number of divisive amendments, including:
- An amendment by Rep. Ronny Jackson, R-Amarillo, that would end a Biden administration policy allowing the Pentagon to reimburse service members for abortion-related travel and other expenses.
- Roy’s amendment barring the Department of Defense from implementing President Joe Biden’s executive orders on climate change initiatives.
- Two amendments by Roy that would defund diversity, equity and inclusion programs and positions within the Pentagon.
The House, divided largely along party lines, approved these and other controversial amendments, and the defense authorization bill passed 219-210 with four Democrats voting in favor and four Republicans opposed.
Democrats criticized the final product, saying the conservatives’ red-meat amendments turned a typically bipartisan bill — known on Capitol Hill as the NDAA — into a political statement they could not support.
“The Rules Committee really did open up the floodgates for attacks on diversity, attacks on women, really wanted to roll back progress that we had made in prior NDAAs,” said Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso. “The most extreme voices shaped the NDAA, and as a result, it was a piece of legislation that the majority of us could not vote for.”
Escobar sits on the House Armed Services Committee and worked on the original legislation, which she described as a product of bipartisan compromise.
But Roy said previous defense bills were examples of bipartisanship for bipartisanship’s sake, and he shrugged off the lack of Democratic support.
“We’re putting forward products that we believe we can sell to the American people, differentiate us from Democrats and get the job done,” he said.
Another Texas Republican on the Rules Committee, Rep. Michael Burgess of Lewisville, said some of the controversial amendments were unlikely to have reached the floor without the advocacy from Roy and his allies.
“But that’s a good thing,” said Burgess, a Rules Committee member for nearly a decade and currently its vice chair.
Commonly known as the “Speaker’s committee,” the Rules Committee has traditionally been reserved for those loyal to the speaker, such as Burgess.
That dynamic changed this year with the inclusion of Roy and two other ultraconservative committee newcomers, Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Kentucky, and Rep. Ralph Norman, R-South Carolina. With committee Democrats likely to oppose most GOP-proposed rules and amendments, support from Roy, Massie and Norman is critical for Republicans.
The new makeup of the Rules Committee allowed for “a whole bunch of really controversial votes” on the defense bill, said Scott Meinke, a professor at Bucknell University whose research focuses on legislative politics in Congress.
“It’s a really nice illustration of how that change in the Rules Committee makeup, and the larger dynamics in the Republican Party in the House this year, have changed the way this operates. They’ve weakened the Rules Committee’s ability to let the majority leadership control the floor,” Meinke said.
Although Roy, Massie and Norman have repeatedly leveraged their power to strongarm leadership into supporting their priorities, Burgess mostly dismissed the notion that the three new members have significantly shaken things up, arguing that there have been “significant conservatives,” including himself, on the committee for at least a decade.
Burgess denied being frustrated by their tactics but acknowledged that internal fights were difficult to avoid. “It’s going to be tough to win some nights, no question about it,” he said.
Roy belongs to the conservative House Freedom Caucus, which has frequently sparred with McCarthy in its attempts to force the Republican conference to the right. In one recent standoff, Freedom Caucus members delayed votes for several days over their opposition to the spending levels in the debt ceiling deal.
The narrow Republican majority in the House has put a premium on party unity, but some of the far right’s tactics have led to internal tensions. In a tweet shortly before the Rules Committee began working on the defense authorization bill, Roy addressed the tensions.
“To the @HouseGOP mad at me & my friends… 1) our borders are wide open. 2) we have held no one accountable for gross violations of the public trust. 3) our military is woke & decreasingly effective. 4) the American Dream is dying for the middle class. What will we do?”
In an interview, Roy said his goal is to work with the Rules Committee chair, Rep. Tom Cole, R-Oklahoma, but he also wants to make the committee more independent from the speaker.
“We try to make sure that the entirety of the conference is being represented,” he said.
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