I’m just a bill. Yes, I’m only a bill. And I’m sitting here on Capitol Hill.”
Remember the 1975 Schoolhouse Rock! video, “I’m Just a Bill?” When I was teaching American government, I would show my students this video about how a bill becomes a law in Congress.
The video shows the U.S. House of Representatives as it was intended to work, as a bottom-up process where a member writes a bill and gets a majority of colleagues to support it at every level before it is sent to the president to become a law. But today the rules are rigged in a way that makes lawmaking largely a top-down process.
Both parties are guilty of this, and it only adds to the constant gridlock we’ve come to expect from Washington. Recall that in the GOP-controlled 115th Congress, common-sense bipartisan proposals developed by the 40-plus member House Problem Solvers Caucus on health care, immigration reform and other vital issues were blocked from ever reaching the House floor.
We can and must do better to restore the “People’s House” and return power to the people we represent. In July, long before we knew the outcome of the midterm elections, the Problem Solvers Caucus endorsed the “Break the Gridlock” reform package intended to change the House rules to ensure transparency in the legislative process and facilitate consideration of bipartisan solutions to our most pressing challenges.
The current process, by which the speaker has the power to decide what bills we vote on, what’s in those bills and when we vote, needs to be opened up so that individual members are empowered to author bills, amend bills and have a say in what bills are going to be considered in committee and on the House floor. Let’s have the majority rule in the House, not the current process where the speaker makes the decisions and majority party members are told to vote “yes” and minority party members are told to vote “no.” This takes power away from the people and creates the gridlock that frustrates so many Americans.
Among the 10 rules changes in our Break the Gridlock proposal, I believe the most important are the ones that give every member the opportunity to have legislation they author considered in the House, as well as those that allow the majority of the House to rule instead of being held hostage to the extremes. For example, one rule change would grant every member the right to have one bill they introduced considered in a committee that they serve on as long as they have bipartisan support. Another proposal mandates that if 20 Democrats and 20 Republicans cosponsor an amendment, the amendment automatically gets to be debated and considered on the floor. A third requires that any bill that has 290 cosponsors — two-thirds of the House — be debated and voted on the House floor.
Over the past four months, the Problem Solvers Caucus has met with a number of current and potential future party leaders to discuss the Break the Gridlock reforms. After the election, a group of Democratic members in the caucus discussed these rules changes with Leader Nancy Pelosi as well as with Democratic staff members of the House Committee on Rules. My fellow caucus members and I are willing to make minor changes, but as we said in September, we need to see real reform put into the House rules from a speaker candidate in order for that member to get our votes. Republican members of the caucus have even said they’d support a Democratic member for speaker if these rules changes are made.
The gridlock in Washington needs to end. We have a very large class of first-term members coming into the House next year that ran on ending the gridlock. By putting the Problem Solvers Caucus reforms into the House rules, we’ll begin re-empowering members and give Congress the opportunity to work for the American people again.
Democratic U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski represents the 3rd District of Illinois.