Gridlock Can Be Broken After November 6
This week 13 lives were saved by a miracle, and the whole world was blessed to witness it. The rescue of young soccer players and their coach in a treacherous Thailand cave, by strangers who risked death for them after a first expert died trying, was a feat borne of a powerful combination -- will and cooperation. The only way to succeed was to work together; no one could save anyone alone.
Can our leaders in Congress be inspired, or shamed, into working together? The existing power structures in both the Democratic and Republican leadership have long been able to resist it, but those are breaking up. Rep. Paul Ryan is retiring and Democratic House leader Nancy Pelosi will not be speaker either. New hierarchies will form and, with them, new opportunities to change the way Congress works. Partisanship won’t disappear but a far more closely divided House next year will force one of two paths for leaders -- paralysis or problem solving. While much could change, if Republicans ultimately hold their majority they will likely have fewer seats. If Democrats take the House back they aren’t likely to pick up many more than the 23 seats required to flip control. No speaker has control with a five- or seven-seat majority.
Republicans failed in a “unified GOP government” to deliver on their signature promises, save for the tax cut and reform package, because they have deep internal divisions. They don’t work across the aisle either. Problems like immigration and health care don’t come close to being solved. We will face another government funding crisis, and another potential shutdown, in late September. No one, in either party, can credibly defend the status quo. Of course, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who is running to replace Ryan, will try. But outside forces are aligning against him, looking for a conservative alternative like Rep. Jim Jordan or possibly another member of the House Freedom Caucus. To hold on, McCarthy will have to convince his most conservative members that he won’t pass any more costly spending bills negotiated with Democrats or any immigration legalization that they consider amnesty.
Pelosi is also trying to hold on, but she can’t. She simply doesn't have the math to win a race for speaker or even minority leader again. Vox reported Thursday that 24 Democratic candidates are refusing to back her should they win. Incumbents already on the record refusing to support her include Rep. Tim Ryan, who earned 63 votes in his challenge to her in 2016 and who is considering running against her again, as well as Reps. Kathleen Rice, Brian Higgins, Conor Lamb and Seth Moulton. Indeed, according to the most recent NBC//Wall Street Journal poll, the two highest polling priorities for Democratic voters were to be a check on President Trump and withholding support for Pelosi. Respondents were less likely to support a candidate who would back Pelosi for leader, 45 percent-21 percent.
While there is broad bipartisan support for providing protection for Dreamers, for banning bump stocks, for an infrastructure deal and for stabilizing the Affordable Care Act, broadly supported bipartisan bills aren’t allowed to come to the House floor. The Hastert rule, of only bringing bills up for a vote that have support from “a majority of the majority,” has strangled the chamber, with rare exceptions like last-minute funding measures. The House Problem Solvers Caucus, split evenly between 24 Republicans and 24 Democrats, negotiated consensus plans for Dreamer protections paired with border security, gun safety, infrastructure and health care stabilization, and not one of them made it to the floor.
The Problem Solvers are tired of being held hostage to a system in which the speaker only serves as leader of the majority party, sparing his party from votes they don’t want to take on pragmatic and popular legislation because they are looking to protect themselves in primary elections. While hoping to expand their ranks in the next Congress, with more pledged problem solver candidates, the caucus is planning to push whoever runs for leadership for commitments to rule changes that would lead to more bipartisan cooperation in the House. No Labels, which inspired the Problem Solvers Caucus, has launched The Speaker Project, and wants voters to premise their vote Nov. 6 on how candidates or incumbents plan to choose a speaker and change the rules. Lawmakers will be encouraged to form a bloc, withholding support for potential speakers and leaders until they agree to new reforms.
The Speaker Project argues that as the legislature is a separate and co-equal branch of government, the speaker is arguably “every bit as consequential as the president of the United States” -- though currently is “unresponsive” to the will of the voters. In a closely divided House, a bipartisan speaker should be elected by his or her party’s majority plus five, forcing them to go out and earn at least five minority party ballots, and more if some extremist members defect.
The campaign also proposes rules to open the legislative process by decentralizing it and allowing the fair representation and inclusion of the minority party. The process of bypassing committees, and writing bills in the leadership offices, must end. Conference committees of House and Senate members who draft final compromises, instead of leaders doing so in secret, must return. Currently Republicans hold 69 percent of Rules Committee seats despite holding 55 percent of House seats; it should be equal to the ratio of total House seats. Majority members of Rules Committee should also be chosen by the Steering Committee instead of the speaker. A return to regular order that would reduce closed rules would require a three-quarter supermajority for approval of a closed rule without amendment.
Finally, one way to protect a speaker’s ability to work across the aisle is to eliminate the motion to vacate the chair. The powerful cudgel that rump groups or renegade members hold over the speaker is their ability to call for a no-confidence vote, which John Boehner was threatened with and that led to his resignation.
The American people don’t want a toxic, one-party push for impeachment, or another two years of gridlock in Congress while each party blames the other in order to dodge their responsibility to the voters. There are problem solvers in Congress who came to serve and want our government to work. It will be up to them to demand this of both new leaders this fall. Voters should demand this of them first.