Want More Out of Congress? Change the Rules.


Want More Out of Congress? Change the Rules.

Blog Post

By No Labels

Want More Out of Congress? Change the Rules.

Back in 2015, political pundits were regularly calling the House of Representatives “ungovernable.”Some lawmakers shared the same view.

That was the year that John Boehner resigned as House Speaker following years of skirmishes with a small coterie of several dozen conservative lawmakers who exerted a remarkable degree of influence over the whole chamber. Those lawmakers became the House Freedom Caucus, which now has about three dozen members. They continue to have an undue amount of influence in Washington. Indeed, they helped bring down an Obamacare repeal bill President Trump supported last year.

Why does a relatively small group of lawmakers—less than 10 percent of the chamber—have so much sway? The answer lies at least in part in the rules that govern how the House of Representatives operates.

Electing the Speaker

Every two years, at the beginning of each Congressional session, the House of Representatives selects a Speaker. On most occasions, the process begins when the two parties meet separately to select their own leaders. Then the Democratic leader and the Republican leader compete on the House floor for Speaker in an entirely anticlimactic vote in which the leader of the majority party wins.

The real tension, to this point, has focused on the first part of that two-step process. Who will the Republicans choose as their leader and who will the Democrats select?

On two occasions, conservative Republicans challenged Boehner after he had been nominated to be House Speaker before the beginning of a congressional session. Then, to press the issue in 2015, members of the Freedom Caucus filed a third challenge called a “motion to vacate,” which would have forced a midsession vote for Speaker. None were successful, but the math behind a Speaker election made them a constant threat to the House Republican leadership. Like John Boehner, current Speaker Paul Ryan knows that if he fails to heed a conservative enough line—if he works too collaboratively with Democrats—the Freedom Caucus may try to bump him from office.

Why is Ryan’s hold on power seemingly so tenuous? Because the Speaker must be elected by a majority of the whole chamber (218 votes in a chamber of 435) and the leader of the opposing party generally claims all the votes from his or her caucus. That means an intraparty defection can topple the Speaker very quickly. If the majority holds 238 seats, as Republicans do now, a group as small as 21 who are willing to vote against the Speaker have an undue amount of influence.

Challenging the Speaker is considered a major rebellion in the House, and it does not take place casually. But it does happen, and current Speaker Ryan is not immune to the pressure. “The Freedom Caucus has begun to squeeze Ryan, much as it did to Boehner—warning him that without changes his tenure could be similarly endangered,” Politico reported in December.

New House, New Rules

There is a way to improve all this: by changing the rules that govern the House next year, starting with how the Speaker is elected. No Labels is launching a campaign to do exactly that.

Rather than a simple majority of the house (218 of 435), the rule should specify that 60 percent of members are needed to elect the Speaker (261 of 435). This would virtually ensure that lawmakers from both parties are needed to put a Speaker in power, and minimize the ability of a small group in either party to push their agenda by threatening the Speaker’s job.

Equally important, a Speaker elected by lawmakers from both parties would be beholden to both parties, and would be forced to approach the job differently. The new 60-percent Speaker would have to change the way that the agenda is set and how legislation is treated in the House. These changes would all but require bipartisan cooperation to get things done. When Democrats and Republicans work together on legislation, it becomes more difficult for the extremes in either party to hijack the agenda.

No Labels will encourage lawmakers in both parties to support this change and others that can make the House more bipartisan and more productive. We are also asking our supporters to get involved, so keep an eye on your inbox. Gang mentality, red versus blue, should not be the defining characteristic of Congress. The people’s House should be doing the people’s business. It’s time to change the rules.

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