OPINION — It’s not often that I hear about a proposal coming out of Congress and think immediately, “Wow — that’s a great idea.” (No offense, Congress.)
But a recent move from Reps. Tom Reed and Josh Gottheimer was one of those moments. The pair is calling for changes to the House rules to incentivize bipartisanship and consensus-building over the gridlock and tribalism that we’ve all seen growing for the last 15 years or so.
The Republican from New York and Democrat from New Jersey packaged their reforms as a proposal to “Break the Gridlock” and moved the idea out of the House’s Problem Solvers Caucus.
It used to be that caucuses were reserved for ideas and issues that wouldn’t naturally have enough support in Congress without a focused effort, like the Auto Care Caucus or the Electromagnetic Pulse Caucus or the Congressional Chicken Caucus. (All real, by the way.)
The fact that “solving problems” needs its own support group of like-minded members is all you really need to know about how dysfunctional Congress has become. So in terms of problems to solve, changing the rules of Congress is about as good as it gets.
You’d be wrong to think that the current House rules affect only the members and staff of the House. The trend of concentrating power in the leadership is both undemocratic and anti-federal for all Americans. If a member’s voice isn’t heard, their constituents’ voices aren’t heard. Nor is their district represented.
This looks familiar …
Changing the House rules isn’t anything new, of course, and neither are calls for bipartisanship. But now that some House members are threatening to withhold votes from any speaker candidate who won’t agree to the changes, it adds a twist to potentially wound-up leadership races on both sides of the aisle in 2019.
Reed and Gottheimer’s pitch is based in part on the Speaker Project from No Labels, which put forward a series of ideas to change the way the next speaker would be elected and how the House would then operate.
The congressmen want speaker candidates to say they support a fast-track process for legislation co-sponsored by at least two-thirds of the House. They also want a three-fifths threshold to pass bills under a closed rule and a speaker election that requires an absolute majority of the House membership, no matter how many members are in the chamber. And they want to swap out an individual member’s power to begin the process of removing the speaker and replace it with a public petition process.
They also call for a return to regular order, a process that is frequently promised, but usually tossed when the votes are tight.
Racing to the bottom
The response to the proposal from many of the people who could be in leadership races next year has mostly been a noncommittal I’ll-consider-it pat on the head.
It easy to see why. Many of the proposals are designed to drain power away from the speaker and return it to rank-and-file members, including members of the opposite party. The chances of passage for that is — what’s smaller than small? Zero, I guess. Is there anything smaller than zero?
But at some point, members of Congress, including the leadership themselves, have got to realize that they are on a self-induced, shorter-by-the-minute path to irrelevance and ignominy.
When chairmen of committees quit in droves, when young, talented legislators leave to do something worth their time, and when a 17 percent approval rating (Congress’ latest — yay you!) is reason to pop the champagne because at least it’s not as low as the 9 percent mark they hit in November 2013, members have to eventually look around the Capitol and know it’s time for a change — a real one — the way the institution operates.
Now here’s a thought
And that’s where proposals like Reed and Gotheimer’s come in. To their list of ideas, I’d add a few myself:
Abandon the Hastert Rule, which isn’t really a rule at all but may as well be. By requiring a majority of the majority before the House will vote a bill, the Hastert rule has done nothing but incentivize legislation designed to appease the base instead of improve the country.
Term-limit the leaders, not the chairmen. Republicans have hamstrung their best legislators by shortening their terms, and concentrated power in the leadership offices which have no formal limits. If the goal is to give opportunity to up-and-comers, let them lead the caucus while veterans steer the committees.
Return authorship of major legislation to the committees. When a health care overhaul is crafted by the White House legislative affairs office and a handful of leadership aides, it’s hard to see why any rank-and-file members would bother sticking around for the chance to get overlooked and marginalized.
If the goal of the current process was to impose order for better outcomes, it isn’t working. Chaos has just as often ruled the day over discipline, especially on the House side, and Congress has become increasingly marginalized in Washington.
I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve written about how much more the “Do Nothing” 80th Congress did than the current Congress in any given year over the last decade. (Don’t get me started on the need to act as a co-equal branch of government, but that is another column entirely.)
Ideally, the goals of the next speaker would be to oversee a functional legislative body, to run an effective caucus, and to incentivize smart people to come to Washington and stay where they know they’re making a difference.
That doesn’t describe today’s House of Representatives. But a change to the rules could change the game.
Roll Call columnist Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.
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