McGovern-ing the House: How the 2nd District’s Rep Has Chaired the Rules Committee…
WASHINGTON—The House of Representatives took a hiatus from its August break to pass the Inflation Reduction Act. Like all bills, it needed a rule from the Rules Committee, the penultimate stop on the winding, torturous path for the United States’ biggest move against climate change ever. Chairman James McGovern opened the rare midsummer hearing on a different topic.
McGovern mourned to his late colleague, Jackie Walorski, an Indiana Republican, who had died in a car accident. She had been a close ally in his key issue: battling hunger in the US and around the world.
“Jackie was a dear friend, someone who cared about uplifting the most vulnerable among us,” he said. “This is not a loss just for Indiana, but for Congress, for the anti-hunger movement and the country.”
This was not a one-off for tragedy. McGovern has tried to chair this naturally partisan committee with humanity, winning praise from Democrats and some Republicans. However, with November looming, his time as chair could end soon.
The Rules Committee governs the lower chamber on Capitol Hill. In addition to writing literal House rules, it also governs debate on individual bills with individual rules. As with the IRA, the committee sets terms for debate and selects amendments that get floor votes.
Tom Cole of Oklahoma, the ranking Republican, acknowledges differences with McGovern, but appreciates his fairness.
“Sometimes it can be pretty acerbic and funny,” Cole said of McGovern’s remarks. “But he’s never gaveled down a member. He has never not been fair.”
Despite complaints about a lack of GOP amendments or Democrats’ suspension of rules requiring markups of bills, Cole was likelier to blame Democratic leadership than McGovern.
“I think the Democrats have run a tighter ship than Jim wanted to run,” Cole added.
Speaking to WMP&I in his office in the Cannon Building, McGovern had no interest in needling Cole either. He noted that in 2019, Lawrence O’Donnell observed the Rules Committee’s meeting on impeachment contrasted favorably with the invective at the Intelligence and Judiciary committees.
“Jim McGovern and Tom Cole gave the nation a masterclass of civility, in how they handle themselves on this very, very polarizing topic,” McGovern recalled O’Donnell’s saying, quoting him almost perfectly.
“Personally, I like him, I disagree with him on a lot of stuff,” McGovern said of Cole. “But I personally have great respect and admiration for him. I mean, he’s someone who I think cares about this institution and who I can do business with.”
Indeed, they work together on hunger and tribal issues (Cole is a member of the Chickasaw Nation).
If Republicans appreciate McGovern’s gavel-wielding, fellow Democrats are effusive in their praise.
Maryland Congressman and Rules member Jamie Raskin, who was an impeachment manager and sits on the January 6th Committee, said McGovern commands respect partly because of his passion on issues like hunger and human rights. Plus, he knows the House.
“He has remarkable institutional memory in his bones,” Raskin said of McGovern. However, he doesn’t use it to shut Republicans down unfairly.
Raskin explained committee’s broad portfolio of, well, everything, enticed him as soon McGovern and his staff approached him about joining.
When McGovern spoke to WMP&I in July, Democrats’ fate seemed especially grim. President Joe Biden’s polls were in the crapper. The climate bill just imploded. Since then, the climate bill rose from the dead. Dems’ chances in the Senate are better. Even a Democratic House no longer seems absurd.
In that nadir, though, McGovern, whose district drapes across Central Massachusetts to Franklin and Hampshire counties, was proud of his accomplishments. Among them was keeping the House running through a pandemic. By comparison, he said, Congress seized up during the 1918 influenza.
Sitting at a modest desk, his back to his office balcony and its view of the Capitol, McGovern was unrepentant about his politics. Weeks later during House debate on the IRA, which also wrangles drug costs, he mocked GOP opposition.
“Republicans oppose this bill because it will cut into Big Pharma’s corporate profits. Boo-hoo!” he said.
Although, he freely calls himself an institutionalist as well. McGovern once worked for former Rules Chair and Boston Congressman Joe Moakley. Mentors like Moakley and South Dakota Senator George McGovern—no relation—instilled an appreciation for process.
“There’s no denying that we all have different styles,” when asked about squaring his approach with faster change progressives demand. They are getting votes, he said. Moderates then complain about votes on progressives’ priorities as progressives complain about moderates’ amendments and bills.
“Welcome to Congress,” McGovern deadpanned.
Part of his job has been to make everything work. He pointed to the massive Defense Authorization bill and the hundreds of amendments Rules made in order. McGovern himself opposed the bill, noting it was $37 billion larger than Biden requested. Still, he had to craft a rule with amendments that enticed some GOP votes without alienating too many Democrats.
“It gets complicated like that,” he said. “I want to make sure that things that I care about, and progressives care about our move forward. But I’m not adverse to having debates on issues that I disagree with. I’ll just fight you, try to defeat you on the floor.”
Rules’ cognizance can be sweeping, even surprising. In an interview at the Capitol, North Carolina Democrat Deborah Ross recalled the first major task she faced on it.
“Welcome to the Rules Committee,” Ross recalled McGovern telling her upon her appointment. “You have to be here tomorrow morning. We’re going to impeach the president,”.
Ross, a first-term Rep, had served on the North Carolina House’s Rules analog. In DC, Rules had been among her committee requests, but not a top one. She accepted a slot after some members lost reelection in 2020. She found everything passing through it as other committees had yet to organize.
“I love being on the Rules Committee because I’m in the middle of the action. I get to ask questions about everything. I get to review bills before they come to the floor, and what other committee gets to do that?” she said.
Pointing to the Defense bill, she noted the 1200 amendments Rules had to sift through. Observers may think congressional committees don’t know what they are doing, but that did not apply to Rules.
“There are no shortcuts in the Rules Committee,” she said.
McGovern said he received a freer hand to oversee the committee from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Pelosi’s office did not directly address McGovern’s independence running what is widely known as the “speaker’s committees. However, in a statement, she roundly praised him.
“Chairman Jim McGovern is a masterful leader of the powerful House Rules Committee, a deeply knowledgeable legislator and a respected voice in our Democratic Caucus,” Speaker Pelosi said. She said she was privileged to call McGovern a “trusted friend.” “He has been an invaluable leader in our fight For The People: from helping deliver life-saving pandemic relief and transformative investments in our nation’s infrastructure to leading the charge on global food security, and more.”
Though McGovern feted the flow of amendments Rules has authorized, Republicans differ. Cole’s office provided stats from this Congress that, as of July 27, suggest only 20% of amendments given floor votes came from the minority party. In the last GOP-controlled House, that was 45%. Although at the time, Dems complained about a record number of closed rules, which bar any bill amendments.
If his party prevails in November and he remains the top Rules Republican, Cole has changes in mind. For example, Cole wants to rollback pandemic-era rules like proxy voting. While he admitted both parties use it to excess, Cole observed that it benefits Dems given their narrow majority.
Cole wants other things to continue, like the bipartisan tradition of allowing members to speak as long as they wish (without filibustering). He would seek to continue the professionalism and cooperation between himself and McGovern and their staffs.
“We don’t get surprised very often,” he said. “I would like the roles to reverse, but I hope the players stay the same.”
Unlike Ways & Means, which Springfield Congressman Richard Neal chairs, Rules’ influence is subtler, even esoteric. McGovern has pull, though. He and Neal passed legislation that killed off a Department of Veterans Affairs’ Asset & Infrastructure Review commission that eyed closure of the VA’s Leeds facility in McGovern’s district.
Westfield State Senator John Velis, who co-chairs Beacon Hill’s veterans committee, called it a win for veterans and “for common sense.”
“The fact that the closure was even considered is confounding to me,” he said in a statement of WMP&I. Velis’ senate district does not overlap with McGovern’s, but he appreciated what McGovern had done.
“As Chairman of the Rules Committee, Rep McGovern wields a significant amount of influence and was monumental in blocking the AIR commission,” Velis continued. “I am grateful to him and our entire federal delegation for their partnership and commitment to not letting the Leeds VA close without a dogged fight.”
McGovern’s major cause is hunger. The pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine put tremendous strain on food access domestically and internationally. He pressed for a White House conference on hunger, which is happening on September 28. The last one in 1969 spurred expansion of US nutrition programs including food stamps, WIC, and school meals.
Raskin said McGovern visited his district in the Maryland suburbs of Washington to discuss the conference and its ambitions. Hopes are high this conference could have a similar impact.
“The most moving thing for me is when he talks about hungry people and how hard it is for hungry kids for learn and how painful it is to see people in a society of our wealth getting by,” Raskin said.
Laura Sylvester, a Public Policy Manager for the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts said McGovern is present on local hunger issues, too. He and Neal secured funds for the bank’s new facility in Chicopee, which will expand access to the areas of greatest need.
“He also works every year with Monte for Monte’s march,” she noted, referring to Valley radio personality Monte Belmonte’s annual food drive.
Sylvester said McGovern used the Rules Committee to hold hearings on hunger across the country, that led to the White House conference.
“He wants to really look at hunger as holistically as possible and get as many great minds thinking about it as possible,” she added.
The conference could be the last, best opportunity for McGovern to use his gavel to combat hunger. He faces an opponent in November, Jeffrey Sossa-Paquette, but the bigger threat is a Republican majority in November. Though at 62, he could certainly serve long enough to see another Democratic House.
Ross, the North Carolina Democrat, said Rules has done a great deal to move bills in a comprehensive way while giving people their say. On many issues, votes are exactly as expected.
“But,” she added, “we’re serious of purpose and I think that the chairman sets the tone for that in a very positive way.”
First elected two years after Republicans won the House in 1994, the nastiness McGovern encounters had already reached new highs even before January 6.
That day, McGovern took over House debate after security ushered Speaker Pelosi away. Video shows him as among the last to leave the floor as rioters neared. Days later in Worcester, he encountered a man in a business suit at the grocery store who insisted January 6 was staged. McGovern did not hold back, but the episode reminds him the nation’s democracy has not faced greater peril in ages.
Nonetheless, he will not yet hang up his Worcester County Package Store Association gavel—originally his father’s, a packie owner who chaired that group. Town halls are back after two years of pandemic. Mostly, they go well. McGovern can deal with those who cannot wait to call him “an asshole.” Rather, he worries the public harshness is discouraging people from public service. Prospective House candidates tell him as much.
“I don’t want them sitting there and going, ‘Oh, my God, this is brutal. I never would do this,’” he said. “We need good people to run for school committee, we need good people to run for city council to be select boards, to run for mayor, to run for state legislature, to run for Congress, and to run for president.”
Yet, gesturing to the view outside, McGovern said he still gets emotional looking at the dome.
“I still feel hopeful, and I still believe we’ll find a way out of this kind of mess we’re in and I just, I believe that people just can’t give up,” he said.