To Fix the House, Start With the Speaker

By William A. Galston

For The Wall Street Journal
February 27, 2018

The House of Representatives has become a tyranny of the majority. Speakers use their control of the Rules Committee to protect their party members from tough votes and to ensure that as many factions as possible within their party are comfortable with bills that reach the floor. Members of the minority party have virtually no say in the proceedings. As a result, the lower chamber is the place bipartisan proposals go to die.

It doesn’t have to be this way, and the upcoming midterm elections offer an opportunity for change. Longtime observers of congressional races believe that when the dust settles in November, the victorious party will have only a slim majority, probably fewer than 10 seats. If so, members determined to create space for bipartisan legislation would be able to use their leverage by withholding their votes for the majority’s candidate for speaker until the candidate agrees to support reforms in the way the House does business.

This strategy, championed by the nonpartisan group No Labels (which I helped found), could play out in a number of ways. For example, the holdouts could demand an end to “closed” rules that prevent members from offering floor amendments to contested bills; they could ban the consideration of legislative language that members have not had a chance to read and ponder; they could insist that both parties be represented in conference committees.

Such an approach would not be without precedent. After the midterm election of 1922, the Republicans were left with a narrow majority of 225 seats. A small band of Republican progressives refused for eight ballots to support Frederick Gillett, their party’s anointed candidate for speaker, until he agreed to a package of procedural reforms prior to the ninth.

Re-enacting this drama in January 2019 would be a big step forward. But today’s House reformers have the option of going even further by turning the office of speaker into a force for bipartisanship. As things now stand, successful candidates need only a simple majority of members present and voting for a candidate. Suppose that the threshold were raised to 60%. Unless one party enjoyed such a supermajority, a candidate of the majority could become speaker only with the support of a portion of the minority party. Alternatively, the overall threshold for the election of the speaker could be left as a simple majority, with a new proviso requiring support from at least 10% of the minority.

A change along these lines would fundamentally alter the dynamic of the House. Before the new Congress gets down to business, the majority would be compelled to negotiate with the minority, not only about rules and procedures, but also about the legislative agenda for the next two years. The odds of achieving bipartisan solutions to pressing problems would increase significantly.

A speaker chosen in this manner would be more likely to represent a majority of Americans, not just a majority of the majority. He or she would really be speaker of the House—the whole House—not just the majority leader with a glorified title. And if catastrophic events elevated the speaker, now third in line, to the presidency, prior support across party lines would increase his or her legitimacy.

Critics argue that such a reform would produce gridlock and chaos in the House, but this is unlikely. Supermajority requirements thwart action only when acting is optional. But electing a speaker is not optional. In fact, it is the only constitutionally mandated office of the House. Article I, Section 2 states that the House of Representatives “shall chuse their speaker.” (It does not say how, leaving the House free to establish its own procedures.)

This proposal is not directed against any individual or either party. Everyone knows that the parties are much more polarized than they were a few decades ago. But current procedures are making this even worse. As matters now stand, speakers have few opportunities to pursue bipartisan solutions. Aggrieved factions of their own party will resist, and if necessary punish, all departures from party orthodoxy. Only a bold change in the rules of the game can give both leaders and rank-and-file members new incentives to cooperate.

Nor does this proposal represent a moral critique of today’s members of Congress, who are no worse than their predecessors. While some of them prefer making points to making laws, most journey to Washington to do the people’s business and are stunned and dismayed by what they find here. They are good people trapped in a bad system, and only a fundamental reform of this system can allow them to heed what they know to be the better angels of their nature.

Share