Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and others on the socialist left applauded minor changes in the rules package the House of Representatives adopted on Sunday for the new Congress. They say it paved the way for enacting the Green New Deal, single-payer health care, and other items on the socialist agenda. But the “concessions” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., granted amount to meaningless window dressing.
The Left’s Strategy
In the weeks leading up to Sunday’s opening session of the 117th Congress, the socialist left rallied around a movement to “Force the Vote.” This movement, which included a website, #ForceTheVote hashtag, virtual town hall, and other measures, intended to push the House of Representatives to vote on single-payer health insurance in the coming Congress.
The #ForceTheVote movement attempted to pressure socialists like Ocasio-Cortez to withhold their votes for Pelosi’s re-election as speaker unless Pelosi gave a public pledge to bring single-payer to the House floor. The strategy arose in large part because House Democrats lost seats in November, giving them a narrower majority this Congress and giving each Democratic member of Congress more leverage.
Because House rules require the speaker to obtain a majority of votes of the entire House—435 members, assuming no vacancies—only a handful of defections would have jeopardized Pelosi’s re-election as speaker.
What the Left Got
After release of the proposed rules package for the upcoming Congress on Friday, socialists pointed to the language below as “allow[ing single payer], a Green New Deal, or other big-ticket agenda items to be exempted from PAYGO,” the House’s “pay-as-you-go” rule that requires fiscal offsets for spending increases or tax reductions:
(v) EXEMPTIONS.—The chair of the Committee on the Budget may adjust an estimate under clause 4 of rule XXIX to—
(1) exempt the budgetary effects of measures to prevent, prepare for, or respond to economic or public health consequences resulting from the COVID–19 pandemic; and
(2) exempt the budgetary effects of measures to prevent, prepare for, or respond to economic, environmental, or public health consequences resulting from climate change.
Ocasio-Cortez called these changes “a big deal—and not only on health care. They are structural changes in the House that level the playing field for a full SUITE of flagship legislation.”
Why the Changes Don’t Matter
While Ocasio-Cortez played up the impact of the rules changes, in reality they amount to very little, on either substance or process. They won’t have the impact socialists claim—in fact, they won’t have much impact, period. Here’s why.
The House Can Waive PAYGO Whenever It Wants: The majority (i.e., Democratic) staff on the House Budget Committee make this plain in a Q&A document on PAYGO: “The House PAYGO rule can be waived in several ways,” including by unanimous consent or under procedures to suspend the rules.
The House Rules Committee also regularly reports rules that waive PAYGO. For instance, the rule that brought marijuana legalization legislation to the House floor last month included the following language: “All points of order against consideration of the bill are waived.”
While the Congressional Budget Office said the marijuana bill would reduce the deficit by bringing in new revenue, that language in the rule still waived PAYGO for the legislation. In other words, the House’s PAYGO rule isn’t the real obstacle to considering single-payer in the House—Pelosi is.
The House Can Remove Pelosi Whenever It Wants: I recently noted that Pelosi’s changes to House rules in January 2019 make a direct challenge to her authority as speaker—the motion to vacate—more difficult. But a determined majority of 218 representatives could take control of House floor proceedings any time they like. They could just vote down everything—every bill, every rule, every matter of business to come before the House—until such time as the speaker resigned his or her post, or they obtained whatever other concessions they sought.
Be Honest with Constituents
If Ocasio-Cortez doesn’t want to go down such a confrontational road, so be it. Perhaps she doesn’t have allies willing to withhold their votes against Pelosi, giving her little leverage on her own. Perhaps she can’t come up with a better procedural strategy to force a vote on single-payer.
But Ocasio-Cortez shouldn’t try to spin some throw-away language in a rules package as a meaningful victory—on either policy or process—when it is nothing of the sort. Like that of Donald Trump, Ocasio-Cortez’s rise came from the authenticity that her supporters perceive between themselves and her. Rationalizing what amounts to a sizable retreat as a major victory will in time only lead to disappointment and disillusionment among her followers.
Correction: An earlier version of this story indicated—incorrectly—that the rules change does not exempt climate or COVID legislation from the pay-as-you-go rule. While the rules package the House adopted did not amend the PAYGO rule explicitly, it did allow the House Budget Committee chairman to override the rule at his discretion. However, as the Capitol Hill publication Roll Call has noted, “the House regularly waives existing pay-as-you-go rules” governing consideration of legislation, making the change more cosmetic than substantive.