Kevin McCarthy’s grueling struggle to become speaker of the House of Representatives was mostly an embarrassment for him and his new Republican majority. Yet among the fumbling and chaos, you could catch glimpses of how the House could improve itself — that is, if party factions advance structural reforms.
Such promise is not easily seen in a lot of what happened last week. Some of the Freedom Caucus members who were holdouts on Mr. McCarthy seemed to see themselves less as legislators bargaining toward policy outcomes and more as commentators hurling outrage at the very institution they worked so hard to join.
Others, however, entered the fight with valid complaints about the overcentralization of power in the House. As Mr. McCarthy worked to win their votes, it became clear that genuine structural change can be achieved by applying leverage at the right moments.
Mr. McCarthy offered a number of hollow concessions. For example, lowering the threshold for a new vote for speaker matters little, since members wouldn’t seek such a vote if they didn’t think a significant number of their colleagues would support it.
But he also committed to advancing discrete spending bills rather than another massive omnibus, like the one in December, restoring something of the order of the budget process. And he proved willing to cut into the core of the speaker’s authority by surrendering control over some seats on the crucial House Committee on Rules.
That committee determines how bills will be taken up on the floor, how much time they will get and whether and what sorts of amendments will be allowed. It is more skewed toward the majority party than the other House committees and has been under the thumbs of House speakers for decades. Surrendering seats on that committee to a faction of the party is an extraordinary and highly consequential concession.
It may matter more as a model for future factional negotiations than for its immediate effect. In the current House, Republicans have an exceedingly narrow majority and do not have the option of deferring to a president and Senate majority of their party. This divided Congress is therefore unlikely to advance major legislation and will need some foresight and luck even to avoid a disastrous debt-ceiling crisis.
But frustrated legislators of both parties can draw a crucial lesson: A determined group of members that picks its moment well can drive meaningful institutional change if it holds together and shares a vision of a less consolidated Congress.
Observers of today’s Congress tend to think that the party coalitions are too fractious and that the institution is too unwieldy. But the opposite is closer to the truth: Each party is now too cohesive to allow for much meaningful negotiation within or between the parties over substantive policy priorities.
The exceptions prove the rule. For instance, in the last Congress, Democrats expressed no end of outrage at the modest heresies of Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. Yet it was only such departures from party orthodoxy that permitted the modest bipartisan legislative achievements — like the infrastructure bill — of that Congress. A broader congressional majority would need more such internal diversity, not less.
Both chambers of Congress are much too tightly controlled by party leaders to enable the kind of policy negotiation that the institution was intended to foster. Major decisions are made by the so-called four corners — the leaders of each party in each chamber — and most members are left with too few legislative outlets for their energies.
The highest purpose of Congress is not to advance the favored legislation of either party’s activists but to enable representatives of an always fractious society to address public problems by negotiating across lines of difference. Very little about today’s Congress — almost nothing except the crucial Senate filibuster — compels or encourages that kind of cross-partisan bargaining. A more effective Congress would need to be far better suited to this purpose.
That calls for concerted decentralization, which means empowering not individual members but groups of members to advance shared priorities and negotiate differences.
Advancing shared group priorities would mean building more coherent factions within the two party conferences. Members should pursue their key goals by organizing with like-minded colleagues and thinking in terms of more self-aware party subgroups. As the political scientist Daniel DiSalvo has observed, “Factions may reduce party unity, but paradoxically they may also increase the parties’ ability to govern.”
Opening room for negotiated legislation, meanwhile, requires grasping the importance of the committee system in the House. Mr. McCarthy’s Republican critics seemed intent on weakening the speaker by empowering individual members. But isolated members offering proposals and amendments on the floor are more easily overpowered by party leaders, and the House floor is essentially a television studio.
Real decentralization would require giving power to the middle layers of Congress’s work — the committees, which are organized around substantive policy domains and where members could work out differences in smaller groups and more focused ways.
Right now, in a Congress tightly run by party leaders, the work of the committees barely matters. Helping their work to matter more is crucial to improving Congress.
All this points to some specific reforms that members contemplating future leadership struggles could have in their back pockets. Consider five examples:
First, members could learn that the Rules Committee could be transformed from the speaker’s fief into a place for negotiation among the majority party’s core factions about priorities.
Second, they could help the work of the committees matter by giving each of the House’s authorizing committees control over some modest portion of time on the floor, allowing legislation that has made it through the committee — perhaps with at least one vote from a member of the minority party — to be considered by the entire House, even if it is not a leadership priority. If members had the sense that their committees matter, they might engage in more substantive legislative work.
Third, they could further empower the committees by eliminating the longstanding boundary between authorization (the design of programs) and appropriation (the spending of money on those programs), which are now done by separate committees. This would allow the committees that write policy to also propose the spending required to carry it out and would give members who aren’t now appropriators a reason to take their committee work more seriously. The House worked this way from the late 1870s until 1921, and while that period of decentralized appropriations offers some cautionary lessons, there are strong reasons to embrace that approach again.
Fourth, and relatedly, reform-minded members could demand a rethinking of the congressional budget process. Created in the mid-1970s to serve a legislature looking to consolidate the Great Society and confront an aggressive Nixon administration, the budget process is now at the heart of Congress’s dysfunction. Mr. McCarthy’s critics got him to promise to abide by the existing process; their successors should demand a bipartisan effort to rethink how it works altogether.
Finally, members could move to transform the dynamics of the House through an important bit of constitutional maintenance: Until 1913, the number of members in the House grew regularly with the decennial census, as the population increased. This was clearly the intention of the Constitution’s framers.
If Congress had continued to follow the formula for expansion it used in the 19th century, the House would now have about 150 more members than it does. Expanding it by that number and then letting it grow a little with every census as the population does would improve representation, increase the likelihood of more varied intraparty factions and help spur other needed changes. Reformers should demand a vote on such a move.
There is no shortage of such ideas, but there has been a shortage of will and of imagination to pursue them. For too long, members of the House have failed to grasp that they could change the institution. For all the chaos of the speakership struggle, it should now be clearer to groups of members that they have the capacity to advance constructive change that would help them do the work they were elected for.
Yuval Levin, a contributing Opinion writer, is the editor of National Affairs and the director of social, cultural and constitutional studies at the American Enterprise Institute. He is the author of “A Time to Build: From Family and Community to Congress and the Campus, How Recommitting to Our Institutions Can Revive the American Dream.”
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