By Lindsey McPherson Washington
The motion to recommit, or MTR, is a vote afforded to the minority on most bills that allows them to offer last-minute changes
House Democrats across the political spectrum want the rules package for the 117th Congress to change the power of one of the minority’s only legislative weapons.
The motion to recommit, or MTR, is a vote afforded to the minority on most bills that allows them to offer last-minute changes.
The MTR has been used in the past as a procedural vote to kill legislation by sending it back to committee, but in recent years it has become a substantive vote that would actually amend the bill if adopted. In either scenario it is mostly used as a political messaging vote in which the minority tries to trap the majority into going on the record on controversial policies.
“It’s turned into a joke,” Representative Dan Kildee, D- Michigan, said. “It’s something that both sides use for one purpose and one purpose only, and that is to play gotcha for the elections.”
House Republicans in the 116th Congress have won eight MTR votes, mostly with amendments that moderate Democrats were afraid to vote against.
For example, Republicans successfully used an MTR in February 2019 to add language to Democrats’ priority gun safety bill expanding background checks to require the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency to be notified if an undocumented immigrant tries to buy a gun.
Democrats have floated a variety of ideas for changing the MTR, such as returning it to a procedural vote that does not amend legislation on the floor, raising the threshold for adopting the motion or getting rid of it altogether.
Republicans, unsurprisingly, oppose the changing the MTR. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy accused Democrats of trying to “overturn centuries of precedent just to protect their own political futures.”
“These rumoured changes are a disgrace and would forever tarnish the institution in which we serve,” the California Republican said in a statement.
But even institutionalist House Democrats like Majority Leader Steny H Hoyer believe the MTR could use some retooling. While leadership has not made any decisions on how to proceed, Hoyer personally prefers to keep the MTR in an altered form over eliminating it.
“The Republicans of course treat the MTR as a procedural issue, so any arguments that they would make that this is depriving them of rights, that’s baloney,” Hoyer told CQ Roll Call. “They tell their members, ‘You vote against it no matter what the substance is ... because it’s just a procedural motion to undermine the bill.’”
House Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern, D-Massachusetts, said he’d like to hold a hearing before agreeing to any changes.
“I believe in minority rights,” McGovern said. “I also, I get the point that it has been weaponised in a way that it’s not a constructive legislative tool. But whether there’s a way to deal with that, I don’t know.”
The MTR is just one area of the rules Democrats want to change. Others under discussion include the return of earmarks and eliminating or relaxing pay-as-you-go rules that require the cost of legislation to be offset by spending cuts or revenue increases. McGovern is hoping to have a draft package ready to present to the Democratic Caucus in a few weeks.
Rep. Stephanie Murphy, D-Florida, is proposing raising the threshold for adopting a MTR from a simple majority to two-thirds, arguing that it would retain the minority’s right to offer a last-minute amendment while requiring it to be broadly supported to be adopted.
“The reality is that MTRs have been used by the minority party to campaign on the House floor,” Murphy said. “But what the effect of it is is that they’re changing well-thought-out, well-written legislation with a last-minute amendment. And I think if you are going to have no more than 10 minutes to consider something, it should be overwhelmingly bipartisan and a no-brainer to pass. Otherwise, you are just passing into law or amending bills in a haphazard way.”
Murphy co-chairs the moderate Blue Dog Coalition, whose Democratic members vote most frequently in support of Republican MTRs.
McCarthy took aim at her in his statement, saying, “It would be nice if Speaker (Nancy) Pelosi and her so-called moderate members like Stephanie Murphy spent as much time working to deliver Covid relief as they do devising ways to rig the process to prevent blowback against their party’s radical policies.”
Not all moderate Democrats have a problem with the MTR, however.
“l love MTRs. Great opportunity to vote against some of the crazy Democrats’ stuff,” Representative Kurt Schrader, D-Oregon, told CQ Roll Call.
Schrader, a Blue Dog, said he prefers the simple majority threshold for adopting the MTR but is open to Murphy’s proposal.
“But getting rid of them would be bad,” he said. “What is fascinating to me, you got all of these younger, newer members that don’t realise your time is gonna come when they’re in the minority and they’ll wish to hell they had an MTR to go.”
Progressive Democrats want to go further and get rid of the MTR altogether.
“I don’t think it serves any purpose,” said Representative Ro Khanna, D-California, calling the MTR a “gamesman” procedure.
Khanna, a leader of the Progressive Caucus, said the group prefers to eliminate the MTR but is open to compromise on other proposals like Murphy’s.
Kildee said he’s open to any of the proposed fixes that prevent situations in which members have five minutes to make a decision on potentially substantive policy changes to a bill.
“Either it’s got to be a procedural vote and members then can make a judgement as to whether they want to stop the legislation from moving forward, which is the way the MTR was originally constructed,” he said, “or, if it’s going to be a substantive amendment, there’s no way we can justify trying to determine the effect of language with five minutes’ notice before we vote on it. That’s just not responsible.”
It’s difficult to predict whether the MTR will be changed in the final rules package that gets voted on the opening day of the 117th Congress, especially since Democrats will have a thin margin to get the package through without Republican support. While a lot of Democrats are interested in it, there’s also some people who will resist any change, Kildee said.
“I understand the traditions and all that, but the tradition was that it was a procedural vote, and it’s evolved into something different,” he said. “We’re not honouring any of those old traditions by protecting what it has become.” — Tribune News Service
* Lindsey McPherson is a staffer at CQ Roll Coll a privately owned publishing company that produces a number of publications reporting primarily on the United States Congress
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