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Rule-Making Rebels
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Rule-Making Rebels

Rep. Thomas Massie, long a congressional contrarian, says he wants his role on the powerful Rules Committee to be constructive.

Rep. Thomas Massie (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

Republican Rep. Thomas Massie has more experience butting heads with his party’s leaders than just about anyone in the House. Now he’ll serve on the powerful Rules Committee—a job typically reserved for staunch leadership allies—because of a deal Speaker Kevin McCarthy made with his Freedom Caucus critics to secure the speakership.

Joining Massie are Reps. Chip Roy and Ralph Norman, two Freedom Caucus members who initially opposed McCarthy’s speakership bid. The committee’s new makeup means those three members could exercise veto power over GOP leadership’s plans—and can enforce the parts of the deal with McCarthy that assured a more open legislative process. Massie backed McCarthy in the speakership race and isn’t a Freedom Caucus member, but he has broadly libertarian beliefs and aligns with the group in many ways. 

Often the sole “no” vote on bills with wide support, Massie is infamous for being a contrarian. He told reporters after the midterm elections that a slim majority means “I can decide whether a bill passes or not.” So the Rules posting has fueled concerns he and the Freedom Caucus members may block or delay legislation they disagree with—such as a debt ceiling increase later this year.

But Massie is taking a somewhat softer tone about the role. “It’s not my goal to be on the Rules Committee and to stop everything that I don’t like,” Massie told The Dispatch Monday. “Even though when you look at it numerically, the composition of the committee, ‘Oh my gosh, three people could stop anything.’ That’s not my goal. For me, I don’t think it would be productive or sustainable for me to do that every week.”

But that doesn’t mean he’ll operate with a go-along-to-get-along attitude. He described his role on the panel, alongside Roy and Norman, as canaries in the coal mine who can alert GOP leaders to concerns among some rank-and-file Republicans. 

He recalled pointing out to McCarthy and Rep. Tom Cole, the top Republican on the Rules panel, as they discussed him joining the committee that “it doesn’t always work out for the canary.” He added, “But that’s what we are, and I think we just have to do our best to represent the will of the conference while sticking to the rules that we’ve established for ourselves.”

The addition of three members willing to buck leadership is a massive shift for a committee historically reserved for advancing the speaker’s agenda.

The Rules panel directs floor debate on legislation and is the most heavily stacked in favor of the majority party: The breakdown last Congress was nine Democrats to four Republicans. This Congress it’s reversed: nine Republicans to four Democrats. That math translates to a majority to reject GOP leaders’ plans if the two Freedom Caucus members and Massie join Democrats to vote against anything.

Massie says his main priority will be allowing more amendment votes, particularly with spending bills. He has long criticized Rules Committee moves to block rank-and-file members from weighing in on bills.

One of the “10 most depressing moments I’ve had in Congress” came in 2016, he said Monday. Democrats had won enough GOP support to attach controversial amendments, such as a gay rights bill, to spending legislation (ultimately tanking it). Ryan responded by telling the Republican conference he would no longer advance open rules for spending bills, limiting members’ ability to offer and vote on amendments. “‘We’re going to protect you from those evil Democrats,’” Massie characterized Ryan as saying. “‘We’re not going to allow any more of these votes like this.’”

Massie conceded that most House Republicans cheered Ryan’s move at the time, but he wants to see a return to the earlier way of doing things. The big question is, if all hell breaks loose on the floor (which is entirely likely with such tight margins) will Massie, Roy, and Norman stick to idealistic plans about enforcing open processes or limit amendments from Democrats?

Massie is open to blocking Democratic amendments in some cases if they end up being poison pills that could kill legislation, he said Monday.

“Ultimately our goal is still to get a Republican agenda passed through Congress,” Massie said. “Not to stop the Republican agenda, but to make it better.”

In practice, that’ll resemble a structured rule, according to Molly Reynolds, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution. The Rules Committee would review amendments to a given beforehand, make Republican amendments in order for the full floor to consider, and block ones from Democrats that they don’t want the full House to vote on.

But getting the process right matters most to Massie: “Time to read the bills, getting separate votes on different things. Not attaching things that aren’t germane to certain bills. I think that’s what we owe the American people, a process that works.”

On the Floor

The House is scheduled to consider a measure commending the courage of human rights protesters in Iran. Members are also expected to vote on a bill intended to expand American oil and gas leasing on federal land.

Key Hearings

  • The Senate Judiciary Committee met this morning to examine Ticketmaster. Information and video here.

Of Note

Haley Wilt is a former associate editor for The Dispatch.