A Day in the Life of Congress’s “Traffic Cop”

The Rules Committee of the House of Representatives has been called many things: traffic cop, the Speaker’s committee, handmaiden of the Speaker. I prefer supreme office manager. Other committees have self-explanatory names: armed services, foreign affairs, judiciary, natural resources, budget. Rules is above all that. It decides which bills go to the House floor, and

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The Rules Committee of the House of Representatives has been called many things: traffic cop, the Speaker’s committee, handmaiden of the Speaker. I prefer supreme office manager. Other committees have self-explanatory names: armed services, foreign affairs, judiciary, natural resources, budget. Rules is above all that. It decides which bills go to the House floor, and how and when they will be debated. In late May, when the federal government teetered on a financial cliff, at risk of defaulting on its loans, the country was counting on the thirteen members of the Rules Committee to advance a bill that would lift the debt ceiling and prevent a crisis. But what were the rules of Rules? Whenever I read up on the committee, I felt like that meme of a woman squinting through a gauzy palimpsest of math equations.

I understood that Rules, like the rest of Congress, was stridently divided. In January, as part of the dealmaking required to become Speaker of the House, Kevin McCarthy had agreed to install far-right members of the G.O.P. to powerful committees. Rules now had nine Republicans, three of whom were from or allied with the Trumpist Freedom Caucus, and four Democrats, all from the Progressive Caucus. The Freedom Caucus hated the debt-ceiling compromise that McCarthy later devised with President Biden, arguing that it was stuffed with “unnecessary, wasteful spending,” and promised to vote it down. Chip Roy, one of the new Freedom Caucus members on Rules, called the bill a “betrayal” by McCarthy. The Progressive Caucus wasn’t happy, either. Jim McGovern, of central Massachusetts, the ranking Democrat on Rules and one of the most liberal members of Congress, considered the compromise an attack on “the most vulnerable in our country.” He opposed the bill’s expansion of work requirements for “life-saving food benefits” and asked why the Republicans weren’t willing to raise taxes on corporations or trim military spending. “Give me a goddam break,” he said.

In the end, neither McGovern nor Roy got what he wanted. Despite their no votes, a majority of the Rules Committee sent the bill to the full chamber; the Senate approved, and Biden signed off. McGovern had joined the Rules Committee in 2srcsrc1, and was its chair from 2src19 to the start of 2src23. Now he was getting used to losing. Since joining Congress, in 1997, he has been known for his idealism and ability to play well with others. He has served under five Presidents and seven Speakers of the House: Newt Gingrich, Dennis Hastert, Nancy Pelosi, John Boehner, Paul Ryan, Pelosi again, and McCarthy. The list reminded me that, for all our talk of unprecedented polarization, there have been plenty of fractious moments in recent history. How different do things feel to a longtimer like McGovern?

McGovern was raised in a liberal household in Worcester, once known as the ideal industrial city, about an hour west of Boston. His parents owned a small liquor store and rented out an attached triple-decker home. They believed in Christian charity (slipping twenty-dollar bills to hard-up customers, forgiving their tenants’ rent) and a strong role for government. When Robert Kennedy was killed, in 1968, McGovern’s mother made him and his sisters write sympathy notes to Ethel, Kennedy’s widow. In middle school, McGovern learned about George McGovern (standing joke: “no relation”) and volunteered for his 1972 Presidential campaign. After college, in Washington, D.C., Jim McGovern got a staff job in the office of the Massachusetts congressman Joe Moakley. This was the era of Ronald Reagan’s dirty wars in Central America, and McGovern led an investigation into the execution of Jesuit priests in El Salvador. When McGovern was sworn in to the House, he was flanked by the senior McGovern and by Moakley, who had been the chair of the Rules Committee. A few years later, Moakley was diagnosed with cancer and lobbied for McGovern to take his place. “He called me up, and he said, ‘I have three months to live, and you need to go to the Rules Committee,’ ” McGovern told me.

Last month, I spent a couple of days with McGovern in D.C. On a hot Tuesday morning, the start of a seventh consecutive week in session (many vacations were cancelled, owing to debt-ceiling negotiations), he was at his desk, preparing for yet another Rules meeting. His staff came in to drill him on the agenda and some talking points, then hustled him underground to the Capitol.

The Rules Committee meets in a cramped rectangular room painted lemon and ocean blue; portraits of former heads of the committee hang on the back wall. (When McGovern was chair, he had a copy of Kadir Nelson’s painting of Representative Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman to serve on Rules, added to that wall; it has since been taken down.) At 3:src5 P.M., Tom Cole, of Oklahoma, the current chair, started the meeting. The members weren’t all in attendance, and those who were stepped in and out of the room. Only Cole, McGovern, and Mary Gay Scanlon, of Pennsylvania, stayed put for the entire proceeding. McGovern wore a black suit, black dress shoes, and a light-blue polka-dot tie. He cycled through a set of poses: resting his bald head in his hand, gnawing on a pen, pursing his lips, scribbling on documents prepared by his staff. That day, there were three agenda items, two of which were wonky: a bill that reduced certain mortgage fees, and a package of bills that would amend insurance options under the Affordable Care Act. The final item was a bit of theatre: a nonbinding resolution that condemned the use of public schools to house new immigrants.

Several weeks earlier, the Mayor of New York City, Eric Adams, had announced that some of the tens of thousands of migrants who’d recently arrived from the southern border (or perhaps some Republican jurisdiction that had loaded up buses with asylum seekers) could be temporarily housed in twenty public-school gyms. The plan provoked a strong reaction from parent groups and right-wing media, and soon appeared to be scrapped. Nevertheless, Representative Virginia Foxx, of North Carolina, who heads the Education and Workforce Committee, gave testimony in support of the resolution and its reproof of “sheltering aliens.” “The border is wide open,” she said. McGovern observed that the resolution was “a big nothingburger,” more P.R. than policy. “Does this have the force of law?” he asked Foxx.

She said, “Mr. McGovern, you know better than anyone” what a House resolution does.

“I do,” he said. “I just wanted to make sure you did.”

The Rules Committee generally hears testimony only from legislators (often the heads of other House committees) and doesn’t enforce time limits on debate. It had been assumed that, because of the privileged status of Rules, the people who got the job would police themselves. That no longer seemed to hold; recent meetings had run as long as eleven hours. This meeting was dragging, too. My mind started to wander. I studied the members’ name plaques and logged the verbal contortions of decorum. The Republican women went by “Mrs.,” the Democrats by “Ms.” “The gentlelady from New Mexico,” the “gentleman from South Carolina,” “our friends on the other side of the aisle” . . .

McGovern and the other Democrats were annoyed by the immigration resolution. Roy was annoyed by their annoyance. South Texas was overrun by “illegals,” Roy said, and Washington didn’t seem to care. Biden, he said, had abandoned the border to let in a flood of fentanyl pills and Central Americans. Roy yelled and banged the desk for emphasis, as though he were auditioning for a slot on Fox News. This roused the members who’d been dozing off. The room was freezing, and the tips of my fingers had wrinkled and gone numb.

At 6:25 P.M., three and a half hours into the meeting, Cole started to wrap things up. “I don’t envy your job, Mr. Chairman,” Thomas Massie, a Freedom Caucus-adjacent libertarian from Kentucky, said.

“Nobody does,” Cole replied.

“I do,” McGovern said. Everyone laughed, though McGovern wasn’t completely kidding. When he had been chair, he told me, the mood was more civil. People let each other talk, in roughly equal amounts. They listened when he instructed them not to call immigrants “illegals.” “It was a totally different game,” he said. “I would do favors for Republicans.” Of the Republicans now on the committee, McGovern was friends with only one. “I love Tom Cole,” he said. He often went to Cole’s office for a post-work cigar and whiskey.

McGovern missed the old days, when “we still had a lot of Republicans who respected the institution,” he told me. I was skeptical about this nostalgia—he had entered the House when Gingrich was in charge—until I watched some old clips on C-SPAN. In January of 1997, he appeared with fellow-freshman Roy Blunt on the call-in talk show “Washington Journal.” Three 2src2 numbers flashed onscreen—one each for Republican, Democrat, and independent callers. The camera cut to a pair of hands flipping through pages of a physical newspaper. I was struck by how slow and quiet (and vaguely European?) the program seemed. The host asked McGovern what it means to be a progressive in Congress. “Well, I think it means someone who believes in dynamic and efficient government,” he said. A caller asked about a recent ethics violation by Gingrich. “I think Jim and I are in total agreement,” Blunt replied. “We are all hurt by the concept that everybody in politics is doing something wrong.”

Over time, McGovern felt the erosion of this coöperative ethos. It wasn’t entirely linear. He has served under five Republican Speakers, and told me, “I like none of them.” But, even during the long war over the Affordable Care Act, he remembered some level of bipartisan possibility. Donald Trump’s Presidency represented a harrowing departure. January 6th was even worse. McGovern was on the House floor when reports of unwieldy protesters trickled in. Security officers approached Pelosi, in her Speaker’s chair, and spirited her away. “She left her phone there,” McGovern told me. “She never came back. And so I was tasked with evacuating the House.” As the chamber emptied, he found himself near the glass doors of the Speaker’s lobby. He watched a group smash through it. Then, he heard a gunshot: the Capitol Police had killed Ashli Babbitt, who was climbing through the hole. After all that, McGovern assumed that the Republicans would condemn the protesters and stop questioning the legitimacy of Biden’s election. He was disappointed. His colleagues in the G.O.P. would tell him, “ ‘Well, this is horrible, but I have to vote to overturn the election because of my primary.’ ”

After thirteen terms in the House, McGovern still thinks of himself as “an accidental congressman.” He told me that “retail politics” was, and still is, the part of the job he likes least: “Entering a room and saying, ‘Hey, I’m fabulous! Vote for me!’ ” He prefers the actual lawmaking and small, focussed meetings.

In a Capitol hallway, on their way to the Rules meeting, McGovern and his team sped past the immense, robed figure of the Reverend William Barber, who’d brought hundreds of activists to town for a national meeting of the Poor People’s Campaign. Four people from the campaign’s western Massachusetts contingent met with McGovern in his office to talk about food and housing. On the wall behind them were mementos from Cuba, whose revolution McGovern had briefly dreamed of joining as a young man. (His father’s response: “I’ll break your ass.”) An activist from Northampton, wearing a shirt that read “Poverty = Death,” explained that he was a veteran and hated seeing people go homeless and hungry in the U.S. “That’s why I voted against this debt-ceiling deal,” McGovern told him. “Seven hundred and fifty thousand people are going to lose SNAP, and this is just the beginning.”

Hunger has been the domestic issue of McGovern’s career. (In foreign policy, it’s human rights, from Tibet and Sudan to Colombia, Ukraine, and China.) When Biden became President, McGovern made it his goal to convene a White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health for the first time since 1969. It wasn’t exactly TikTok material, but when the conference was finally held, last September, it marked the launch of a national public-private strategy to improve food access. His new goal was more local in scope: he was hoping that Massachusetts would approve a budget for free, universal school meals. His two sisters worked in public schools in “economically challenged neighborhoods” of the state, he told me. “They see a lot. Kids begging for food.”

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