Why this year’s contest for Speaker is how Congress should operate | The Hill

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Greg Nash

Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) speaks with Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) as the House votes to adjourn following the fourteenth ballot for Speaker on Friday, January 6, 2023.

If politics is the art of negotiation, Congress is where we negotiate the non-negotiable. It is where our elected representatives debate our differences and tackle controversial issues. At least it should be. 

Today’s Congress resembles a hierarchical organization — like the military or a factory — more than a forum for collective decision-making. It is where one person gives orders, and everyone else salutes and obeys. Anything that prevents them from doing so is deemed counterproductive. 

This view is evident in reactions among journalists, Democrats, and Republicans to the contest for House Speaker. According to the conventional view, the House was “careening into chaos” because it did not elect Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), on the first ballot. Lawmakers’ disagreement over who should be the Speaker caused “discord.” The entire episode was a “debacle” that threatened national security. Some Democrats lectured Republicans to “get their act together” and “do their damn jobs.” As a result, the Republicans who prolonged the contest were cast as  “rebels” or terrorists. (Some of their fellow Republicans have referred to them as the “Taliban.”) 

Yet the contest — the longest since 1859 — did not plunge the House into chaos. And McCarthy’s Republican opponents were not terrorists. Instead, they were merely doing what successful legislators do — using their leverage to extract concessions from McCarthy and his allies to force them to share power, which is currently concentrated in the party leader. The Speaker election gave these lawmakers leverage because party leader McCarthy cannot become Speaker McCarthy without their votes, at least so long as Democrats uniformly support House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) 

Far from chaos, this year’s Speaker contest is precisely how Congress should operate. It is a deliberative body where the members can design the rules to foster debate and policymaking. Instead, McCarthy’s Republican opponents tried to use leverage in one moment to increase their ability to influence policy in the future. As they should.  

The Speaker’s selection and the House rules’ adoption control nearly everything that will happen over the next two years. The failure of these representatives to act immediately to create a more level playing field will leave them on the sidelines until 2025. It is difficult to stand up on the first day and say “no” to leadership. And yet, they are using the rules and circumstances to achieve their goals. All lawmakers should take note and emulate their example.  

At times in our history, lawmakers have used their collective power during the Speaker election to roll back concentrated power. That power in the House can reside in the leadership, the Rules Committee, all other committees, among the members, and a combination thereof. When power becomes too concentrated, it eventually sparks a revolt. Over the last few decades, the Speaker has aggregated unprecedented amounts of power. The Speaker sets the agenda for the majority, chooses which legislation goes to the floor, chooses which members serve on committees, and picks which congressional candidates to support. The Speaker is in control and will readily punish disobedience. And, to maintain power over the House, the Speaker only allows measures to advance that unite their party and (ideally) divide the other party. It follows, then, that the elections in which legislators choose their leaders are an essential—perhaps the only—opportunity for them to shape what Congress does in the future. 

The Speaker’s power is enabled and constrained by the House rules and the Constitution. These rules empower lawmakers to participate in the process. Lawmakers may therefore use the rules skillfully that govern the legislative process to advantage their preferred outcomes. By extension, legislators may, when needed, attempt to alter the range of possible outcomes by using the same rules to change the process. This fact applies to all legislators, regardless of party. The rules can even constrain the Speaker, who uses every means available to resist control. A smart member of Congress, even one advancing an unpopular position, can win through the skillful deployment of the rules.  

What is supposed to happen in a legislature is persuasion and policy deciding. Instead, the debates and confrontations in which legislators participate as the process unfolds represent them acting at cross-purposes to prevail over one another. Throughout a debate on a controversial issue, legislators are reconciled to a single outcome because the dynamic nature of legislative politics generated new options that made a compromise possible where none was previously. But when the outcome is predetermined, when a few people dominate, the debate becomes theater, and the give-and-take of legislating becomes performance art. Legislating becomes debased. Democracy becomes brittle. 

The House has parties — factions — and there are yet more factions inside those parties. In a functional system, individual lawmakers combine and recombine into coalitions around their collective views and interests. Sometimes these combinations become more permanent and evolve into caucuses. This is as it should be, as the House should enact legislation that enjoys majority support. But this outcome is at odds with the goals of party leaders: to keep their party together and divide the other. As the party leaders reinforce their power, they eventually destroy what is unique about a legislature and foment a revolution in support of a new legislative order. That is what we have seen at the start of the 118th Congress. 

The 118th Congress will be a healthier Congress if lawmakers —Democratic, Republican, and combinations thereof, embrace the strategies and tactics exhibited in the Speaker election and use the rules to support their forceful advocacy on behalf of their constituents. They must insist that they are given their prerogatives as legislators: the power to fight for their views and to persuade others to join them. No one — and no few — should predominate by the operation of the rules. 

The result will be more debate, deliberation, voting, and compromise. Speaker Pelosi said no one is given power; they must take it. The fight over who is to become Speaker and what will be adopted as part of the rules of the House is how members make sure they have their fair share and their fair say.

Daniel Schuman is policy director at Demand Progress and Demand Progress Education Fund. He leads organizational efforts to strengthen democracy in America, which include: reforming Congress; providing appropriate checks on the executive branch; strengthening mechanisms for federal governmental accountability, transparency, and reform. James Wallner is a senior fellow at the R Street Institute and a Lecturer in the Department of Political Science at Clemson University. Before joining R Street, James was the Group Vice President for Research at the Heritage Foundation. He spent over a decade on Capitol Hill earlier in his career working in senior positions in both the House and Senate.


Kevin McCarthy

Speakership vote

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