There’s a Right Way to Overhaul Congress

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- From the Department of Bad Ideas: It seems that some members of the House, egged on by the reformers at advocacy group No Labels, have a plan to save the House: Require the speaker to get at least a handful of votes from the other party in order to get elected at the beginning of a Congress.

Yeah. That is … not going to work. There’s no way that the majority party, either Democrat or Republican, is going to give the other party a veto over their speaker selection. So this is a reform that isn’t likely at all to be enacted.

If by some chance it was enacted? The House is required to have a speaker according to the Constitution, which famously says nothing at all about political parties. As parties developed, it made sense for the majority party to govern through the office of the speaker. But that’s purely a convention, supplemented by House rules that could be changed anytime the majority party wants to change them. All the Constitution requires is that “The House of Representatives shall chuse their Speaker and other Officers.” It is entirely silent about the role of any of those officers; the Constitution is indifferent to whether the speaker is a virtual dictator of the chamber, a meaningless figurehead or somewhere in between. 

The influence of the speaker — and of the party leadership in general — has ebbed and flowed over the course of U.S. history, depending to some extent on personalities but more often on the strength of parties in the chamber. When parties were weak, in the middle of the 20th century, speakers had relatively little influence (don’t believe old-timers or would-be old-timers who rhapsodize about Sam Rayburn, who served at a time when committee chairs were the real power brokers of the House). As parties grew stronger, party leadership became more important, and now the House is as top-down as it’s been in at least 100 years, and perhaps the most it has been in its history.

In other words, speakers are powerful now because the House is highly partisan, not the other way around. Try to remove strong partisanship from the office, and the majority party will simply move the real influence in the House down one step to the majority leader. 

It’s not clear if there’s any realistic hope of reducing partisanship in the House given today’s parties. But if there is, these reformers are looking in the wrong place. The problem isn’t that speakers are too powerful; it’s that House committees and subcommittees are far too weak. Strong committees are no guarantee of bipartisanship. But they tend to move in that direction because strong committees usually respect expertise and policy interests, both of which theoretically link members across the partisan divide. 

So the best way to improve the House and to also improve the prospects for bipartisan cooperation is to leave the party leadership alone and implement reforms to help the committees. Eliminate Republican committee chair term limits. Restore some respect for seniority in choosing chairs (although I certainly wouldn’t recommend going all the way back to the old, inflexible seniority system that gave the parties no active role in the choice). Increase committee staffing for both the majority and the minority, and even try to revive some nonpartisan staffing on committees. 

In the real world, we are unfortunately as far away from that set of reforms as we are from having a bipartisan speaker. But at least strengthening the committees is a pipe dream that really would produce more cooperation between the parties — if it ever happened. 

1. Nadia Hilliard at the Monkey Cage explains all about the Office of the Inspector General. Timely.

4. Sean Illing on Trump and the rule of law.

5. And my Bloomberg Opinion colleague Barry Ritholtz takes a look at inflation

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