The tough reality for reform-minded representatives elected to Congress for the first time this month is that their most important point of leverage will occur right after they’ve been sworn in. After that —after the next Speaker is elected, the leadership teams are chosen, and the committee rosters are set — new members are likely to realize that more senior members hold almost all the power. But it need not be this way. If they can summon the courage, this year’s incoming members can make themselves the most powerful new class of congressional representatives in recent history. But they will have to seize the moment.
Let’s begin with a bit of honesty about the rules as they existed in this outgoing Congress. It’s not just that first-year members elected in 2016 weren’t given much of a voice. It’s that power under the old regime was vested almost entirely in the office of a Speaker who spent the bulk of his time running scared of the most extreme members of his own caucus. Because the rules governing Congress left Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) beholden to the Freedom Caucus, he was unable (or unwilling) to bring up bipartisan bills that would appeal to Democrats and Republicans elected from swing districts. Reformers of all stripes—but particularly junior members—were iced out of the decision-making process.
If this next Congress is seated and organized without major rule reforms, the same thing will happen in reverse. No matter who is elected Speaker, he or she will find members from safe districts dictating the congressional agenda. Members newly elected from districts that periodically flip between red and blue — the members most likely to be ousted in the 2020 election if they fail to get Washington working in a more productive, bipartisan way — will again be shut out. Set aside who becomes Speaker—without changing the rules to open the door for bipartisan progress — and we’ll simply get more of the same.
This year, however, the freshman class has a way out. For much of the last year, members of the Problem Solvers Caucus, a group of members split evenly between Democrats and Republicans, studied the rules that govern the legislative process and emerged with recommendations for a better way to operate Congress. Their aim was to devise a set of reforms that would redistribute power away from the entrenched ideological extremes in both parties so rank-and-file members had more influence on the bills brought to the floor. They eventually emerged with a package that would accomplish just that—a set of reforms that they have titled Break the Gridlock.
Now, these Problem Solvers are taking an even bolder stand. This week, nine of its Democrats—led by Caucus Co-chair Josh Gottheimer (N.J.) —sent a letter to Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) saying they would not be voting for her—or any other Speaker candidate—without a written commitment on these rule reforms. To add to the drama, seven of the Caucus’s Republicans—led by Co-chair Tom Reed (N.Y.) —announced they’d be willing to take the unprecedented step of voting for Pelosi—or another Democratic Speaker—willing to do the same.
The race for Speaker is above all a numbers game, and in a narrowly divided Congress, it appears these Problem Solvers may have the numbers to force through the most consequential changes affecting the legislative process in a generation. Imagine a Congress where a broad bipartisan bill dealing with immigration or gun safety or infrastructure or countless other issues was actually able to get to the floor for a vote and even become law.
That kind of Congress is within reach, and if just a few more members are willing to join the Problem Solvers in this effort, it will become reality.
I hope members from more competitive districts understand that Break the Gridlock is really a once-in-a-Congress opportunity. These reforms represent the only realistic opportunity you will have to steer the House toward an agenda that will keep you in good stead with the voter who supported you, but likely supported your opponent two years earlier. Absent these reforms, you’re likely to face a re-election fight in which you have to defend a congressional agenda crafted almost entirely by more senior Democrats who are more interested in sticking it to the other party than in forging bipartisan solutions. In other words, the debate we’re about to have on the rules of the House may well determine the contours of the campaign you’ll be compelled to run in 2020.
Set aside the lobbying you’re inevitably facing on who should become speaker. The most important thing today is for you to join the Problem Solvers in refusing to support any speaker candidate who fails to embrace the Break the Gridlock rules reforms. If these reforms become the law of the House, you’re stock immediately rises. If the House reverts to the status quo, your opportunity to shake up Washington will fall that much farther out of reach.
Bayh served as senator from 1999-2011.