Ryan, Open Process Hailed as Highway Bill Passes

Ryan, Open Process Hailed as Highway Bill Passes
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When Paul Ryan became speaker of the House last Friday, he promised a return to regular order -- empowering individual members, allowing amendments and votes on the House floor -- as part of his goal to get the institution working again. Just a week later, lawmakers took a step toward those goals by passing a long-term transportation and infrastructure measure by an overwhelming bipartisan margin.

The bill, which passed by a 363-64 margin Thursday morning, authorizes more than $340 billion for transportation and infrastructure projects over the next six years, though only three years are paid for in the legislation. The Senate passed a similar measure earlier this year, and the two chambers will conference in the next several weeks to craft an agreement before transportation spending through the Highway Trust Fund runs out Nov. 20.

“This has been a great week in the people's House,” Ryan said at his first solo press conference as speaker, which followed the vote. “We just completed the work on a bipartisan highway bill. It cuts waste. It prioritizes good infrastructure. It will help create good-paying jobs. And it is the result of a more open process.”

That open process took up the vast majority of the time on the House floor this week. More than 300 amendments to the bill were submitted and members debated more than 100 of them, leading to votes and debate late into the night several times. According to Ryan, there were more amendments debated this week than in the previous four months combined.

Rep. Rob Woodall called it a “festival of democracy” while debating on the House floor Wednesday afternoon.

Not everyone was pleased with the process, or with the highway funding measure. A number of conservative Republicans voted against it because it included reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank, which saw its charter expire in June because Republicans fought against renewing it. Conservatives decry the bank as “crony capitalism,” but it has the support of the majority of members, including a number of Republicans. Several votes on amendments to restrict the bank and complicate its reauthorization were shot down late Wednesday night.

Democrats were frustrated by those amendments, and also were upset that several of their own amendments didn’t receive votes. Rep. Peter DeFazio, the top Democrat on the transportation committee, criticized the fact that there was no vote on an amendment he proposed that would have indexed the gasoline tax for inflation, which would have led to a minor increase in gas prices. The gas tax has long been a user fee to pay for infrastructure spending, but it hasn’t been raised in two decades.

DeFazio also complained that the bill likely didn’t have adequate funding for three years, let alone the full six, and shouted on the House floor Wednesday, “Why can’t we have a simple vote on revenue?”

Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, expressing frustration with the Export-Import amendments and the rule outlining debate, said, “You can have a zillion amendments and if they’re all awful, it won’t be a good rule.”

Woodall countered those Democratic arguments, noting that though the rule governing debate didn’t include every amendment and every voice, it was a vast improvement over the past process.

“If folks don’t think we’ve gone far enough today, fair enough, let’s talk about it again tomorrow,” the Georgia Republican said. “But I challenge you to tell me that we did it better yesterday."

Despite those disputes, however, the measure moved forward. Many conservative members of the House Freedom Caucus, the group that helped push former Speaker John Boehner out the door last month, opposed to the bill because of Ex-Im, but applauded Ryan’s commitment to allowing an open floor debate.  

“The process is certainly open and I think it’s great,” said Rep. Mick Mulvaney. “The attitude, by the way, from leadership has been fantastic.”

Beyond the highway bill, Ryan began to overhaul the way the House does business in other ways during his first week. Thursday morning, Republicans met for a strategy session on how to proceed with spending bills and funding the government following the budget agreement reached last month and ahead of a Dec. 11 deadline. Ryan, in his press conference, noted that not only was the process on government funding starting well over a month before the deadline, but he was also actively seeking input from the rank-and-file members.

“Normally, we wouldn't be talking about this yet. It's November. I'm sure someone, somewhere would be writing a bill, but only when the deadline approaches would anyone actually see the legislation,” Ryan said. He added that Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers will hold sessions with members to allow them to review each spending bill and give their input.

“We've never done this before, but that's how we should work,” Ryan added. “From now on, that's how we will work.”

The strategy, both to seek the input of lawmakers and to avoid running up against deadlines, was part of what many members, particularly conservatives, sought in the recent leadership shuffle following Boehner’s resignation, and Ryan’s commitment to it so far has their support.

Rep. Raul Labrador said one week in is far too early to judge the progress of Ryan’s speakership, but added he is pleased with the early work on the budget process.

“That’s excellent, that’s fantastic and I think he’s going to do that every week,” the Idaho Republican said. “We’re all hopeful and optimistic right now, but I don’t think we can actually judge anything yet."

Minority Leader Nancy Pelsoi echoed Labrador’s point that one week is not long enough to evaluate Ryan because of the adjustments and changes that come with taking the speaker’s gavel, from dealing with staff turnover and new priorities to assuming the post in the middle of a legislative session. 

"The first week is not the time to judge a speaker," Pelosi said. "Just getting through the week is an accomplishment, with all the things that barrage a speaker and his time."

James Arkin is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at jarkin@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @JamesArkin.

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