How to Limit Dysfunction in the House

(Bloomberg View) -- It's been a busy week, but one important story that shouldn't fall through the cracks is that House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling announced he won't run for re-election. We never know exactly why politicians make this kind of choice, but it's easy to imagine three stories that may be contributing factors.

One is a 2018 story. While his Dallas-area seat isn't expected to be competitive, the Republican's retirement is a reminder that the biggest reason for House landslides is often locked in months before the election, when politicians and other political actors make decisions based on their expectations of the future political climate. 

Another is a story of Republican dysfunction. It's likely just no fun being a Republican in the House these days, between getting attacked by conservative talk radio, having to defend Donald Trump, dealing with the factions of the House Republican conference, and getting very little done. 

The one I think is most important, however, is the story about Republican committee term limits. Hensarling would have been termed out of his chairmanship after this Congress, so he was losing his influence within the House soon. And in part because of term limits, that influence just isn't what it once was, or even what it is for Democratic committee chairs when they have the majority. The truth is it takes time to learn the job, and more time to become a real expert in how to get things done in the House. Republicans, by self-imposing committee chair term limits, guarantee that they will never develop legislators on the level of now-retired Democrats such as Henry Waxman or John Dingell. 

It's not just term limits; both parties have concentrated more power within the House into the party leadership, so it's not even clear whether Democrats will be producing Waxmans and Dingells going forward. But Republicans really have no chance to do so. And so it's no surprise when their influential members leave early.

I know: There's an argument that all this turnover is great because it keeps them close to the people. Nonsense. What it does is leave the party increasingly dependent on lobbyists to draft legislation for them because they don't have the skills and knowledge base. And representation, too, is a skill that gets better with practice. Sure, there are examples of members of Congress who stay too long, and an overlapping set of examples of those who lose touch with their districts. But on the whole, experienced members are better at representation and better at legislating and the other things Congress does in Washington. 

Congress scholars disagree to some extent about exactly how important Republican term limits are to all of this, but I'm not aware of any of them believing those limits are a good thing. Eliminating them would be a positive step toward making the House -- and especially Republican-majority Houses -- a lot less dysfunctional.

1. Must-read from Dave Hopkins on tax cuts, elections and conventional wisdom

2. Matthew Green at the Monkey Cage on John Boehner and what Paul Ryan could learn from him. 

3. Interesting Norman Eisen argument about Trump's recent tweets and obstruction of justice

4. Heather Caygle at Politico reports on Nancy Pelosi's attempts to quiet impeachment talk. 

5. With open season for Affordable Care Act exchanges beginning, Julie Rovner at Kaiser Health News looks at all the ways the Trump administration has deterred people from enrolling

6. Conor Friedersdorf on Trump as victim

7. Nice item from Ed Kilgore on distinguishing between slaveholders who founded the nation and slaveholders who attempted to destroy it. I'd add: The idea that we should have to idealize and mythologize people in order to admire them is really nuts. Franklin Roosevelt can be a great president despite (among other things) locking up ethnic Japanese citizens and repeatedly compromising with Democratic Party bigots from the South. George Washington can be a great American and president despite being a slaveholder. Thomas Jefferson can fully deserve his memorial despite being so, let's say, problematic that at least half the time I see that Roman temple I'm tempted to hiss. Grown-ups don't expect their heroes to be perfect. And yes, as Kilgore says, what that has to do with honoring a bunch of traitors is beyond me.

8. And a Civil War reading list from Ta-Nehisi Coates? Yes, please. 

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

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. 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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