Politics & Policy

Fact vs. Fiction: A Guide to This Week’s RNC Meeting and July’s Convention Rules

Donald Trump and Reince Priebus speak in Detroit, March 3, 2016. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty)

The Standing Committee on Rules will take center stage this week at the RNC’s spring meeting in Florida. Reporters, convention delegates, and campaign officials will hover over the group’s gathering, ready to seize on the slightest proposed tweak to recommendations that could govern the GOP during July’s convention and for the next four years.

But they are likely to be disappointed. According to interviews with a dozen RNC officials, the most urgent conversations and significant debates this week will take place privately on the sidelines of the spring meeting, far away from the microscope of the Rules Committee.

Members of that panel know they are being scrutinized, as rumor and misinformation spread rapidly about their ability to alter the GOP’s rules ahead of the convention. Speculation over such last-minute changes reached a fever pitch last week: Some Rules Committee members held a series of calls to warn against changes at the upcoming meeting. Others responded by leaking agenda items, sparking news stories about proposals that have no chance of being adopted. And RNC Chairman Reince Priebus met privately Monday evening with an influential collection of conservative leaders who were concerned about Rule 40(b), the elimination of which could endanger their favored candidate, Ted Cruz, at a contested convention.

To cut through the noise, here’s a guide to this week’s RNC meeting and an explanation of the process that will usher the party from now through July’s convention.

Why is so much attention being paid to the RNC’s spring meeting?

Because it’s a gathering of the Republican party’s most powerful officials, who will have enormous influence over the process of choosing the GOP’s nominee in Cleveland this summer.

The RNC’s 168 members, all of whom are delegates to the national convention, will huddle Wednesday through Friday at a resort in Hollywood, Fla. With that much influence under one roof — and rumors swirling about the party’s changing its rules, with its presidential nominee still unknown — everyone in the political world is paying close attention to the RNC’s agenda at this particular meeting.

So will we see changes to the party’s rules this week?

No, because the rules can’t be changed this week.

This is important to understand: The only time the Republican party’s rules can be officially rewritten and adopted is every four years at its national convention. That duty falls first to the convention’s Committee on Rules, a group of 112 members — one man and one woman from each of the 50 states and six territories, elected by members of their convention delegations.

They meet the weekend prior to the convention and are tasked with approving the package of rules that will govern not only the convention but also the Republican party for the ensuing four years. Once a package is passed by a majority of the committee, it must be ratified by a majority of the convention delegates on the floor. Then, and only then, does the Republican party have an official set of rules by which to operate.

What about the RNC’s Standing Committee on Rules?

That’s a different entity altogether. Known as the “permanent” Rules Committee, it’s made up of 56 RNC members, one from each of the 50 states and six territories. During the four-year period between conventions, this group reviews the rules package approved at the previous convention. They offer new resolutions as well as amendments to existing rules, debate them, and ultimately cast votes.

When resolutions are approved by the permanent committee, they are included in a package of recommendations. At the end of four years, those recommendations are passed along to the convention’s Committee on Rules, which then has authority to approve, reject, or amend any of them, as well as any new recommendations from its independent membership.

Notably, there is often a great deal of overlap between the two entities — which, for brevity, we’ll call the RNC Rules Committee and the Convention Rules Committee. Because the party prizes continuity in its rule-writing process, members of the RNC Rules Committee are heavy favorites to win one of their state’s two spots on the Convention Rules Committee. And then, following the convention, they often wind up back on the RNC Rules Committee for the next four years.

Okay, so the RNC won’t change the rules this week. But will it change its recommendations?

Probably not — at least not in any significant way. The RNC Rules Committee has spent four years debating these matters and formulating its package of recommendations. Because of that, most members see no cause for last-minute tinkering.

“We have studied these rules, we have gone through every rule over the last four years, and we’ve made recommendations that a majority of the committee agrees to,” says Ron Kaufman, the Massachusetts committeeman and a Rules Committee veteran. “There will be some people who probably submit proposals in Florida, but I don’t expect anything to happen with them.”

“Everybody knows the real shooting match comes at the actual convention, so I don’t expect a lot to happen in Florida,” says Bill Palatucci, the New Jersey committeeman and a member of both the RNC Rules Committee and the 2012 Convention Rules Committee. “We’ve gone over these rules at each of the RNC meetings over the last four years. We’ve done a lot of good work, I think, building on the foundation the Romney people gave us in 2012. There’s not a lot left to do at this point.”

Is that the only reason?

Of course not. However confident they may be in the recommendations they’ve produced over the last four years, members of the RNC Rules Committee also know their every move is being closely monitored — especially by supporters of Cruz and Donald Trump — and any alterations at this point will be subject to accusations of bias.

“Having talked to most members, there’s a consensus to make no changes,” says Randy Evans, the Georgia committeeman and chairman of the Republican National Lawyers Association. “We’re in the middle of the game, and you shouldn’t change rules in the middle of the game. . . . And even if we change a comma to a semi-colon somewhere, we’ll get accused of rigging the game against someone.”

Priebus confirmed on Sunday that he has encouraged RNC Rules Committee members not to make waves this week.

“I think you begin to mess with this stuff now and you’re walking through land mines — it’s just not worth it,” Iowa committeeman Steve Scheffler, a longtime Rules Committee member, says. “I think it’s best to steer clear of any controversy by tabling everything.”

Priebus, for his part, confirmed on Sunday that he has encouraged RNC Rules Committee members not to make waves this week. “I think we’re in a politically charged environment, I think it’s too complicated,” Priebus told CNN’s State of the Union. “We can’t actually change anything — it’s up to the delegates at the convention. So the recommendations, I think, just confuse people.”

It’s worth noting: Even if the RNC makes no news this week, its rules recommendations won’t be finalized until the summer meeting in Cleveland. That meeting will take place the week before the convention, and it should adjourn Friday after a vote in which the entire RNC ratifies the Rules Committee’s package. The Convention Rules Committee then convenes almost immediately and begins its work that weekend by evaluating the RNC’s package.

What proposals are expected this week? And why are people so animated about them?

There are two distinct proposals that people have been gossiping about in recent weeks — one that’s likely to be introduced and voted down, and one that’s unlikely to be introduced at all.

The first idea belongs to Oregon committeeman Solomon Yue, who has been hawking a proposal that would force the convention floor in Cleveland to operate under Robert’s Rules of Order, rather than under House of Representatives rules. He wants to create maximum “transparency” at the convention, he told Politico, by shifting power from the presiding officer — Speaker Paul Ryan — to the delegates. The problem, Yue’s colleagues say, is that this idea has been offered ahead of past conventions, and it will be voted down this time for the same reason it was in the past: It would invite chaos on the convention floor.

“Under Robert’s Rules, if I stand up and the chairman recognizes me and I have the floor, I can ramble on forever about anything,” Curly Haugland, the North Dakota committeeman, says. “But under House rules, in order to get recognized, you have to stand up and get recognized for a very specific purpose. It’s much more structured, much more disciplined. And with a constituent group of 2,400 delegates, all of whom would have the right to ask for the floor – you just couldn’t possibly have that meeting under Robert’s Rules.”

What about the second proposal?

Well, it’s not actually a proposal — it’s something that has long been discussed and debated internally but is highly unlikely to be offered before the Convention Rules Committee meets.

The rumor pertains to the RNC’s Rule 40(b), which stipulates that a candidate must win a majority of delegates in at least eight states to have his name presented for nomination at the convention. That statute was adopted by a pro-Romney Convention Rules Committee in 2012 to prevent Ron Paul’s supporters from entering his name into nomination and embarrassing Romney, the de facto nominee, at his coronation event.

There has been much talk of eliminating Rule 40(b), but very little concrete action. Supporters of both Trump and Cruz are fighting to uphold the rule, because it would make any “white knight” scenario — in which a candidate with few or no delegates swoops in, unites the party, and takes the nomination on the convention floor — all the more improbable.

Here’s the thing: Because the convention delegations currently being chosen are heavily populated with supporters of Cruz, and to a lesser extent Trump, the Convention Rules Committee will similarly be populated with members loyal to their campaigns. That makes it extremely unlikely that Rule 40(b) would be eliminated in Cleveland. The best hope for opponents of the rule, then, was for the RNC Rules Committee to include such language in its package of recommendations and hope for a like-minded (and strong-willed) chairman of the Convention Rules Committee.

Hence the dialogue last week between Priebus and Cruz allies from organizations such as Heritage Action, the Club for Growth, and the Family Research Council. (These meetings have taken place every three to four months since last spring.) The conservative leaders were hearing rumors that such a last-minute elimination of Rule 40(b) wasn’t far-fetched, and they pressed Priebus and his staff on the issue. They were told such a move was incredibly unlikely.

If Rule 40(b) stands, does that mean Cleveland delegates can vote only for Trump or Cruz?

No. Winning a majority of delegates in at least eight states — as Trump has done and as Cruz is expected to do — guarantees only that your name is entered into nomination at the convention. That means those candidates will be greeted with the pomp and circumstance of an introductory speech, inspirational music, etc. before the vote is taken.

There will be plenty of action in Florida this week — but the most important debates and pressing discussions will take place in private hotel suites, not in public committee hearings.

But delegates who are bound to other candidates — say, Marco Rubio — are still able to vote for him, despite his name not being entered into nomination.

“Rule 40(b) applies to someone being formally nominated; it doesn’t say anything about how people can or can’t vote as delegates,” says Henry Barbour, the committeeman from Mississippi and veteran of both the Convention and RNC Rules Committees. “It applies to all of the ballots if you want to be formally nominated. But delegates can vote for someone who hasn’t been formally nominated. Rule 40(b) isn’t going to change whether Rubio’s 170-some delegates are going to vote for him.”

So back to Florida: If no rules changes are going to pass, does that make the RNC meeting a snoozer?

No way. There will be plenty of action in Florida this week — but the most important debates and pressing discussions will take place in private hotel suites, not in public committee hearings.

Specifically, party officials say, a top priority is becoming clear for Priebus as the convention approaches: He needs to begin vetting and considering potential chairmen for the four convention committees — on Rules, Credentials, Platform, and Permanent Organization.

Why is that a top priority?

Traditionally, the party’s presumptive nominee and his campaign have filled those positions, even though the official appointments are handed down by the RNC chairman. But this year, as it becomes increasingly likely that no candidate will enter the convention with the 1,237 delegates to be considered the presumptive Republican nominee, the responsibility of staffing the convention’s committees will fall to Priebus.

The significance of this duty, and of the positions themselves, cannot be overstated. Committee chairmen at the convention possess enormous latitude to guide the debate and procedure. (This is true even though convention committees operate under Robert’s Rules of Order.) The chairman of the Convention Rules Committee will be particularly powerful and important. In 2012, Mitt Romney installed former New Hampshire governor John Sununu to that post, and he effectively shut down any proposals that could have harmed Romney’s interests.

“The difference this time is we’re not going to have a presumptive nominee staffing the Rules Committee and guiding the process,” says Curly Haugland, the North Dakota committeeman and veteran of the 2012 Convention Rules Committee. “Last time Romney’s lawyers were everywhere — they were the staff for the committee, and they had Ben Ginsberg embedded as a member to enforce all the rules. So they were in absolute and total control of the Rules Committee. They could have changed the color of the moon if they wanted to.”

“That won’t be the case this time,” Haugland adds. “The power will be diffused among the different delegations. We’re going to have consensus agreements this time, not mandated agreements. . . . I’m going to be asking [Priebus] about his choices down in Florida — because I’m going to be on the Rules Committee and watching pretty carefully to make sure we have as fair a person as we can possible get.”

The issue of fairness, of course, is paramount. To preempt any accusations of bias, the RNC must appoint chairmen — especially to the committees on Rules and Credentials — who have remained publicly neutral in the primary fight. This is easier said than done. For instance, party officials view Sununu as a logical choice given his experience with running the contentious committee, but his criticisms of Trump render him ineligible.

“Obviously Reince can’t put someone in that position he can’t fully trust,” says one RNC member close to Priebus, who has discussed the matter with him and therefore requested anonymity. “That chairman has to be an honest broker, a referee who is not going to take sides. It’s got to be somebody with credibility who has stayed neutral in the race, not someone who has been taking shots at Trump or Cruz or whoever. And that sure takes a lot of people off the list pretty fast.”

Moreover, the RNC member says, whoever chairs the committee is “going to be going toe to toe with Rules experts, people who know them backwards and forwards. You had better know what you’re doing and be able to stand up to him.”

With such significant positions to fill, and such a narrow pool of choices from which to fill them, Priebus’s search will be among the most sensitive topics of conversation this week in Florida.

Is anything else going to happen?

Yes. Look out for some seemingly less significant maneuvers that end up proving important down the road.

One specific example: Enid Mickelsen, the Utah committeewoman and RNC Rules Committee member, introduced a resolution at January’s winter meeting to strip the first four states on the primary calendar of their special status. Then, over the objection of New Hampshire committeeman Steve Duprey, she successfully postponed consideration of the measure until a later meeting, allowing the RNC Rules Committee an opportunity to evaluate how the four states conducted their contests.

Mickelsen did not return calls seeking comment, but several RNC sources now say they’ve been told she will withdraw her resolution at this week’s spring meeting. That would represent a major victory for the early states, especially Iowa and New Hampshire, whose favored position has been under attack for years.

However, as mentioned earlier, the Convention Rules Committee will have the ultimate say. It’s likely that one of that group’s 112 members will introduce a similar amendment in Cleveland — or at least a measure stripping Nevada, the fourth state on the nominating schedule, of its place in the voting order — and incite a procedural riot inside the committee.

This is yet another reason the selection of a Convention Rules Committee chairman will be so crucial – both in the short  and long term. When a proposal to eliminate the early states’ status was introduced in 2012, Sununu responded, “Over my dead body.” But with his successor likely to be chosen for perceptions of political neutrality, all bets are off in 2016.

— Tim Alberta is the chief political correspondent for National Review.

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