Republicans Want to Change the Rules. They Know It’s a Bad Idea.

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Good catch by Casey Burgat, who flags a House Republican proposal to shift more influence within the chamber from individual members to the party leadership by means of a rule change that would threaten committee assignments and chairmanships of those Republicans who vote against their party or sign on to discharge petitions.

It’s more of a sideshow than a main event.

Individual members of the House are rarely very influential at all unless they have institutional clout. Typically, over the years, the two ways to gain that are through the committee system and through the party leadership. In the middle of the 20th century, the committees and their chairs controlled things, often in a relatively bipartisan way, and the party was helpless if they wanted to, say, bring a bill to the floor that the relevant committee chair opposed. Through a series of reforms from the late 1950s through the early 1970s, that all changed. Committees declined, and the party became increasingly important, making the speaker of the House the real power within the chamber. 

Still, rank-and-file members didn’t want that process to go too far. Two speakers who tried to centralize too much, Democrat Jim Wright in the 1980s and Republican Newt Gingrich in the 1990s, were quickly toppled. The pretext in both cases was scandal pushed by the other party, but the truth is both could have survived their scandals had the members of their own party been otherwise happy with them.

The reason they wanted to constrain the party leadership is what Burgat talks about: Members want the flexibility to respond both to party needs and district preferences. Keeping a balance between the two makes for a healthy House. When members only care about the district, it’s hard to make coherent national policy; when they only care about the party, it’s hard for them to maintain a good representative relationship with their district. 

The Republican proposal, however, isn’t really about that balance. The idea is apparently to punish those who vote against the “rule” — the specially drafted procedures to follow for any bill considered on the House floor — and those who sign discharge petitions, which force bills to the floor without party or committee approval. Burgat is correct that these are both powers of individual members against the party. But they are also powers of individual members against the committee system. In short, while voting against the rule and the option of discharge petitions are good checks against centralized power, use of those steps tends to be a force against any kind of organization and in favor of chaos.

The majority party’s power in the House comes from its control of the House floor. It’s not surprising that the party would want to crack down on those who undermine it. 

It’s still striking to see members apparently willing to surrender what little individual influence they have in the chamber. Perhaps they really are indifferent to their own district needs. Perhaps they really can’t imagine any conflict between the district and the Republican Party. That’s actually a very depressing thought, since such conflicts are inevitable whether the member of the House realizes it. Or there’s an even more depressing possibility: Many Republicans simply don’t think of themselves as potentially powerful lawmakers, and therefore they don’t realize what they would be giving up by enacting this kind of rule.

Or perhaps the reason Republicans are putting off consideration of this rule until after the election is because they do realize it’s a bad idea and they expect its momentum to fade. 

While I think a hard-and-fast conference rule forcing punishment in these cases would be a bad idea, the real question is whether Republicans — or Democrats, if they win a majority in November — will do the hard work of rebuilding the committees and strengthening the House. 

1. Sheri Berman at the Monkey Cage on the Swedish election and instability in Europe.

3. Nate Silver on this year’s Senate races. Important thing to remember about the Senate (and the House, too, but far more so about the Senate): Every vote counts. Yes, the majority is important; lots of voters aren’t perfectly attached to party lines. Every senator matters.

5. And Jonathan Chait argues that Elizabeth Warren has emerged as the Democratic frontrunner for the 2020 presidential nomination. I think that’s correct if what we mean is that she is the candidate with, right now, the best chance to win. But at least so far, there are still plenty of apparently viable candidates, and as far as I can tell, she only has a small lead over several of them. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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