It’s no secret that Congress is broken. So how do we fix it?
For this column, let’s be realistic about some of the really big fixes, such as term limits or a balanced budget amendment. Constitutional amendments must traverse a winding, uphill path that ends with ratification by three-fourths of the states. When do 38 states agree on anything these days? The Founding Fathers made the Constitution difficult to amend. Today’s culture wars make it impossible to amend.
What realistically can be changed in the near future? The rules. Procedural rules governing House and Senate business can be altered by a simple vote of either relevant body.
Granted, changing the rules wouldn’t be easy, either. As Ouachita Baptist University political science professor Dr. Hal Bass reminded me a few weeks ago, inertia in politics is a powerful thing. But at least changing the rules doesn’t require 38 states.
The nonpartisan group No Labels has some suggestions it’s calling The Speaker Project. One is electing the speaker of the House by a vote of the entire body.
Here’s the rationale.
The House no longer functions as a legislative chamber with 435 members representing their separate constituencies. Instead, it’s controlled by the speaker and by the most aggressively partisan members of the speaker’s party.
One contributing factor is that speakers are elected by winning a majority of their own majority party’s membership, with the minority party not given a voice. To become or stay speaker, you don’t need 218 votes out of 435. You just need 110 from your own party.
Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, maintains power solely by juggling his party’s factions. In this highly partisan atmosphere, he doesn’t act like the leader of the House whose first constitutional responsibility is to be a check and balance against the president and the courts. Instead, he acts as a majority leader pushing through Republican bills in concert with the president. This current Congress is functioning not enough as a separate branch and too much as an extension of the presidency, since both are controlled by the same party and President Trump is so popular with the Republican base. That’s not what the Founding Fathers intended.
No Labels proposes that the speaker instead be elected by the full House, with victory won by collecting votes equal to the majority party’s membership plus five. In other words, if one party has a majority with 230 votes, the next speaker would be elected with 235.
That reform would force speaker candidates to attract votes from the other party, and therefore open the door to more bipartisan legislating.
The Arkansas House of Representatives elects its speaker through a vote of the entire body, with some interesting results. After the 2012 elections, Republicans held a one-vote majority. In the speaker’s race, Rep. Terry Rice, R-Waldron, had the support of most of his party. However, some others formed a voting bloc with House Democrats and elected a compromise, bipartisan candidate, Rep. Davy Carter, R-Jonesboro.
Whether or not you think this was a good thing depends on your perspective. Carter along with other Republican legislators and Gov. Mike Beebe, a Democrat, helped create what was the private option and now is called Arkansas Works. Under Obamacare, states could decide whether or not to expand Medicaid services for lower-income people. Arkansas said yes, but instead of enrolling recipients in government health care, it created a bipartisan program that bought private insurance for 300,000 Arkansans. Not everyone thinks it’s a good idea, but it’s since held the support of 75 percent of the Legislature, and Gov. Asa Hutchinson has embraced it, with changes.
If the rules were changed in the U.S. House, could bipartisan-minded Republicans and Democrats align to elect a bipartisan-minded speaker after Ryan retires following this year’s election?
Again, let’s be realistic: that idea may be no more likely to happen than term limits or a balanced budget amendment. The next speaker probably will be elected by a majority of Republicans or a majority of Democrats, depending on which side wins in November. It likely will be either Nancy Pelosi or a partisan Republican.
In politics, inertia is a powerful thing, especially these days.
But unlike a constitutional amendment, changing at least some of the rules is possible. And these days, possible is the best we can hope for.
Steve Brawner is a syndicated columnist in Arkansas. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.