Although Congress has yet to be sworn in, the jockeying among various factions has long since begun, with battles for leadership positions, committee assignments, and the writing of the rules that govern how the House will operate for the next two years. That last fight is extra important because the rules become the default version for the next Congress, and any faction looking to change them has a harder job than that faction looking to defend the status quo.
On Monday, the House will vote on the rules package, but the proposed version was made public Friday, and it includes two significant wins for progressives. Two years ago, as you may recall, AOC and Ro Khanna led a lonely, last-minute push to strip PAYGO out of the rules. PAYGO is short for “pay as you go,” and is a rule that says that if any new government spending is proposed, it has to be matched either with a tax increase or cuts to spending elsewhere. It was first proposed by former Democratic Rep. George Miller in the ‘80s to make President Reagan look like a hypocrite, but as with most too-clever ideas, it got out of hand -- and in the hands of the conservative wing of the party, it’s been used to say no to whatever it is the progressive wing has wanted to do.
That Ro/AOC push failed, but it did lead to a concession, a promise of hearings for Medicare for All, which is why the first hearing on it took place in the Rules Committee, an incongruous venue for the legislation, but one that had a friendly, progressive chairman who needed progressive votes for his rules package. That hearing created momentum, and progressives won a second, this one in the Ways and Means Committee, where the unfriendly chairman Richie Neal asked members of the panel not to use the words “Medicare for All” at the Medicare for All hearing.
Having lost the first fight on PAYGO in January 2019, progressives, through the Congressional Progressive Caucus and its co-chairs, Pramila Jayapal and Mark Pocan, made clear to leadership early on that reform was the price of their votes the next time. And progressives won some changes to the rules. Under the new package, PAYGO won’t apply to “measures to prevent, prepare for, or respond to economic or public health consequences resulting from the COVID–19 pandemic; and...measures to prevent, prepare for, or respond to economic, environmental, or public health consequences resulting from climate change.” Those are exemptions wide enough for a caravan of dump trucks filled with Fort Knox gold to drive through.
The second win, on the “Motion to Recommit,” was not secured by progressives alone, but in collaboration with many swing district Democrats, according to members of Congress who were involved in the negotiations. The MTR allows the minority party to introduce an amendment on the floor and get a vote on it. The opposition always uses it for mischief, but Republicans are much better at it, because Democrats like Josh Gottheimer happily join them. Their favorite ploy is to make Democrats cast a tough vote on immigration that later gets used in attack ads, but sometimes they even manage to derail legislation. So Democrats effectively got rid of the MTR, and now it’s an actual motion to send the bill to a committee, and can’t include any mischievous, extraneous language.
Clipping the wings of PAYGO doesn’t just pave the way for big-ticket progressive agenda items, but will also be a boon to progressive legislators. Functionally speaking, PAYGO meant that any legislation that spent money needed a “payfor” -- some additional piece of legislation that has been analyzed by the Congressional Budget Office and deemed to save X amount of money, equal to or greater than the new spending. And you’d be surprised how much legislation the CBO says will add to the deficit, even if it doesn’t directly authorize new spending. So to push a bill, you need a payfor. But guess what? There are really only so many CBO-approved payfors, and you can’t just use the same one in each new bill. Therefore, think of them like tickets that you need to ride through committee. With anything scarce, who gets those tickets comes down to power. Committee chairs and leadership control who gets the tickets. And if you’re not a member in good standing, or they’d rather see your bill strangled in the cradle, well then you don’t get a ticket. No payfor for you.
These new PAYGO rules strip that power from leaders and put it into the hands of rank-and-file members — assuming they get approved on the House floor on Monday, which is still an open question. For a refresher on this whole fight, here’s one of my stories from two years ago.