Motions to Recommit: A Brief History and Reform Options

Republicans in the House of Representatives are using a procedural motion to frustrate the chamber’s Democratic majority. To date, two Republican-sponsored motions to recommit have passed the chamber, even though the GOP is in the minority. This has sparked a heated intra-party fight among Democrats over who is to blame and how best to respond moving forward. 

History of the Motion to Recommit

The motion to recommit has been in existence since the 1st Congress.  It is in order after the previous question on a measure has been ordered and thus serves as the final opportunity to alter a bill before a passage vote in the House.  It was typically reserved for bill managers to make perfecting amendments to measures before final passage.  However, as part of a reform package adopted at the outset of the 61st Congress (1909-1911) the House adopted clause 4 of House Rules XVI which granted the right to offer the motion to recommit to a member opposed to the bill, which since 1932 has been interpreted to mean a member of the minority party. 

The motion to recommit has taken one of three forms traditionally: 

  1. Without instructions, (i.e., a straight recommittal) which sends the bill back to its parent committee (effectively killing it);

  2. With general instructions vaguely directing a committee to hold more hearings or gather more evidence;

  3. With instructions to report forthwith containing specified changes. 

A House rules change, adopted during the 111th Congress (2009-2011), removed the general instructions option, so in today's House, a member can offer either a straight motion to recommit or a motion to recommit with instructions to report forthwith. Under the latter option, the bill does not actually return to the committee; instead, the bill is considered amended by the instructions and then is subject to a vote on final passage.  It is this variety of motion to recommit that has caused such difficulty for House Democrats in the early days of the 116th Congress.  

These problems are not unique to House Democrats in the 116th Congress.  My research has shown that narrow, heterogeneous majority parties have struggled for decades to fend off motions to recommit.  In the 1970s, Democrats, frustrated by the successful use of motions to recommit with instructions, began to insert provisions into special rules regularly that permitted only a straight motion to recommit to be offered by the minority. Republicans, incensed by this perceived injustice, codified the right to offer the motion to recommit with instructions into the standing rules of the House upon assuming the majority in the 104th Congress (1995-1997). Given that most bills are now considered under heavily restrictive or closed rules, the motion to recommit with instructions is often the only substantive amendment opportunity members have in the House. 

Different Ways to Respond

What strategies can a House majority employ against the motion to recommit with instructions?  

Just Say No

The easiest is just to vote no on the motion.  This appears to be Speaker Pelosi’s preferred solution.  Republicans have employed this strategy effectively in recent congresses. House Republicans successfully defeated 380 motions to recommit over the past four congresses (112th-115th).   During this period, the average number of Republican aye votes on motions to recommit was less than one, with a maximum of four.   However, many Democrats do not appear willing to adopt this strategy 

Change the Rules

A more draconian solution would be to change the House rules.  The aforementioned rules change regarding non-forthwith instructions was adopted in response to Democrats struggling to defeat motions to recommit during the 110th and 111th Congresses (2007-2011).  A House majority could make any number of changes to the motion to recommit, including removing it entirely from the rules of the House. 

Amend the Motion

A third option would be for House Democrats to attempt to amend motions to recommit with instructions. This would involve defeating the previous question on the motion to recommit, offering an amendment to the proposed instructions, passing the amendment to the motion, and then voting on the amended motion to recommit.  One could imagine the amendment either watering down the original instructions or making them so extreme that they could easily be voted down. This is not a commonly used strategy, but it was successfully employed during consideration of the Internet Freedom and Broadband Deployment Act (HR 1542) in the 107th Congress (2001-2003). It likely provides the most comfortable short term solution to the procedural difficulty that the House Democrats find themselves in.