How to fix Washington, step one
© Greg Nash

Talk about an overcorrection.

A quarter century ago, conventional wisdom had it that Republicans and Democrats weren’t far enough apart on the issues. Some voters complained that they didn’t have a real choice when selecting candidates from between the two. At the time, Democrats had controlled the House of Representatives for decades. Republicans, thinking they’d never win a majority, had often chosen to go along with parts of the progressive agenda—so long as the Democrats incorporated some conservative ideas as well.

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Politics back then wasn’t perfect by any means. But titans like Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill ensured that the two parties would work collaboratively when they could. But frustrated fringe voters often struggled to translate their dissatisfaction into electoral results.

In the 1990s, activists on the left and right decided separately to sharpen the divide, making the parties more antagonistic toward one another. But rather than pursue a purely policy-oriented strategy, they pushed to change the rules that govern the way Washington works. They were determined to create new incentives to ensure that congressional leaders stood with the base of their respective parties—each side becoming less accommodating to the other.

The reforms born in those years affected a whole slew of policymaking processes. But maybe the most influential—really the apotheosis of the whole movement—was something now known as the “Hastert Rule,” named after the former Speaker of the House. Essentially, it went like this: the Speaker, who controls which bills are debated on the House floor, would never bring a bill up for consideration unless a majority of the majority party supported it. In other words, if Republicans controlled, say, 220 of the House’s 435 seats, at least 111 of those 220 Republicans were required to support a bill before the Republican leadership would bring it to the House floor.

The result? Even if all of the House’s 215 Democrats and 109 of the House’s Republicans supported a bill—324 of the House’s 435 members in total—the 111 Republicans who opposed it would win the day. Put another way, little more than 25 percent of the House could in some instances act to kill a bill that the vast majority supported.

Now, there’s no mystery to why legislators instituted the Hastert Rule. It was born from the entirely well-meaning impulse to give voters a clearer choice between left and right. But the reality we face today is a legislative body entirely paralyzed by partisan division. The Hastert Rule forces whoever holds the Speaker’s gavel to ice the other party out of the legislative process. In essence, reforms born to correct an old problem have created something even worse: a system that strangles any bipartisan impulse.

Fortunately, just as yesterday’s representatives crafted the rules that made Washington more antagonistic, today’s leaders have the power to pull us back from the brink. The Hastert Rule wasn’t written into the Constitution. It’s not even written into the law. Rather, the Hastert Rule is simply a tradition, one which now dumbfounds the legislative process. To overcome it, legislators simply need to change the incentives that define the speakership, no matter who the Speaker may be. They need to change the rules of the House to make sure the Speaker represents the broad majority of members, not just his or her own party.

For the first time in recent history, the prospect of changing the rules and making the legislative process more bipartisan is real. Bill Galston, a co-founder of the group No Labels, proposed a dramatic shift in the way the Speaker is chosen in a recent column in the Wall Street Journal. No Labels itself has pledged to make process reform a major focus of the group’s activities through the course of 2018. And maybe most important, the bipartisan Problem Solver Caucus, a group which forged bipartisan approaches on health care, immigration, and infrastructure last year—but has seen all of those ideas stymied by the legislative process—is interested in changing the dynamic on the Hill. If this idea builds sufficient momentum, the Caucus is sufficiently large to demand changes to the House rules when the next session of Congress is seated in January.

The basic truth is that Congress doesn’t function today as it needs to function. Upending the outdated norms that have come to ruin the House could open the floodgates to bipartisan progress. We need rank-and-file members of Congress to work toward process reform because, as our nation’s current challenges make clear, bipartisan progress can’t be forged soon enough.

Tom Davis is a former Representative of Virginia’s 11th District and a co-founder of the bipartisan organization No Labels.