No Labels, the DC-based, bi-partisan centrist movement, seems to be the font of much of the fresh and constructive thinking coming out of Washington these days. The problem, however, is that nothing comes to the floor of the House of Representatives that the Speaker doesn’t bless. Nothing! Why? Because that’s what the rules say.
Time to change the rules.
In a nutshell, here’s the thinking. Control of the US House of Representatives is probably going to be determined by a slim majority regardless of which party wins the mid-term elections next November. Today, according to House rules, it takes only a majority of one to elect the Speaker, or put another way, to control virtually everything the House does. Neither party has much incentive, especially in the tribal political environment in which we now find ourselves, to compromise with the other party. It’s a winner take all rule. It’s also an ill-advised rule.
So, you see, the Speaker of the House isn’t really the Speaker of the House at all—not the entire House, anyway. He is leader of the majority party and the ad hoc Dictator of the House. No legislation comes to the floor of the House unless he or she gives a nod to the measure. The majority party, that is to say, The Speaker, controls everything. This isn’t a constitutional requirement. It is merely a rule, and the House writes its own rules and can change those rules at will. In this current polarized climate, this simple majority election of the Speaker, of course, guarantees gridlock and assures that only one party’s agenda matters. That might be good for political power, but it is terrible for a functioning government, or, we should say, for a government that is supposed to be functioning. As William Galston opined in a recent Wall Street Journal column, the House is the place that bi-partisan proposals go to die.
But it doesn’t have to be this way, and ironically, we are at a point in time when it really would serve the interests of both parties to change the rule governing the election of the Speaker. Neither party can be confident of victory in November, and both parties know the next Congress is probably going to governed by a slim majority. More importantly, such a rule change, would far better serve the interests of our bi-cameral legislative form of government. Both parties understand the likelihood of a very narrow majority emerging from the mid-term elections. If the rules required a super majority of 60% to elect the Speaker, both parties would have an incentive to negotiate with the other party. In particular, the minority party would have some input about the legislative agenda for the House. Today, the minority party really has no say. In fact, the minority party, pretty much, has no say about anything.
There would be no downside to such a rule change. It would result in whoever is elected Speaker having to represent something closer to a majority of Americans, rather than just a majority of his or her own party. It would also stifle the ability of a renegade group within the majority party from holding the House hostage to their particular agenda. Fortunately, today the Problem Solvers Caucus, a creation of the No Labels movement by the way, helps mitigate the influence of an obstructionist group such as the so-called “Freedom Caucus” because the Problem Solvers Caucus does, in fact, consist of an equal number of Republicans and Democrats.
Given the polarization that exists in the country (and in the House) today, the Speaker is largely proscribed from ever seeking any bipartisan initiatives, because an obstructionist caucus within his own party can, essentially, veto anything he or she wants to do. In fact, that is exactly what is happening today.
And here is something else to think about. The Speaker of the House is third in line to become President if something catastrophic were to incapacitate both the President and Vice President. Such a circumstance really isn’t so far-fetched. As recently as 1973, we experienced a brief period of time when we had no Vice President (he was cashiered out of office for bribery) and a President who was, himself, under siege. Having a Speaker of the House who, at least, had the support of some members of the minority party would have considerable merit during such a crisis.
The current House rules were not instituted in the interest of country. They were instituted in the interest of party. Most men or women who decide to run for a congressional or senatorial seat do so because they want to make a real contribution to their country. Most come with the best of intentions, but they are quickly disabused of any notion of being able to do much other than what party leadership tells them to do. Changing the rule governing the election of Speaker of the House would be a huge step in the right direction.