A quiet, overlooked revolution in congressional power

A few days after Democrats passed a one-party coronavirus relief bill out of the House—a bill Senate Republicans refuse even to consider—a new bipartisan bill to support state and local governments is being introduced in a coordinated fashion in both chambers. After a quarter century when party leaders developed leverage sufficient to dictate policy to the rank-and-file, members in both parties and from both houses are crafting legislation from the bottom up.

To understand why this quiet development represents the first volley in what could be a major shift, you first need to understand how Washington has changed for the worse since President Ronald Reagan and Speaker Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.) intermittently crossed swords and cut deals. Back then, committees were the focal points of congressional power. Figures such as Reps. Wilbur Mills (D-Ark.) and Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.) ran the Ways and Means Committee, which controls tax policy in the House. John DingellJohn DingellThe continuous whipsawing of climate change policy A quiet, overlooked revolution in congressional power The Memo: Trump tests limits of fiery attacks during crisis MORE (D-Mich.) ran Energy and Commerce. Jamie Whitten (D-Miss.) ran Appropriations.

During this period, the committee chairmen, however flawed, were by many measures more powerful than the party leaders. Moreover, they were compelled to use their gavels to craft legislation that committee members from both parties could support. If their bills were bipartisan, they were more likely to pass both houses and be signed by the president. So a committee-centered system gave rank-and-file members of Congress a more substantive and sustained voice in the legislative process.

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In the 1990s, that began to change. Frustrated by a sense that the committees weren’t driving change fast enough, a new generation of Republicans, and then Democrats, instituted reforms designed to shift power from the committee chairs to the party leadership. That was done in part by changing the process determining who would hold the gavel. But the upshot, today, is that power in Congress is largely wielded by what some call “the four corners,” namely the Speaker and minority leader in the House, and the Senate majority and minority leaders. Congress, in sum, has evolved from bottom-up to top-down. And because party leaders have been incentivized to be more partisan, that has left less room for bipartisanship to prevail.

The worm is finally set to turn, again. Fueled by growing frustration that Washington’s early multi-trillion dollar reaction to the pandemic was shaped by congressional leaders with little input from members, senators and House members are erecting, almost ad hoc, an alternative legislative process. The bipartisan SMART (State and Municipal Assistance for Recovery and Transition) Act, written collaboratively by members of both houses, would, much like parts of the House bill passed late last week, direct funding to state and local governments. But while the substance of the SMART Act is important, more notable is the process by which it was created.

This bill was not born out of a negotiation between the four corners. Rather, for the first time in memory, and perhaps ever, members of the House and Senate, led by Sens. Bill CassidyWilliam (Bill) Morgan CassidyThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - US virus deaths exceed 100,000; Pelosi pulls FISA bill Stakes high for Collins in coronavirus relief standoff Pass the Primary Care Enhancement Act MORE (R-La.) and Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezGovernment watchdog: 'No evidence' Pompeo violated Hatch Act with Kansas trips No time to be selling arms to the Philippines Senate panel approves Trump nominee under investigation MORE (D-N.J.), and in the House by Reps. Josh GottheimerJoshua (Josh) GottheimerGun control group rolls out House endorsements A quiet, overlooked revolution in congressional power Bipartisan Senate group offers new help to state, local governments MORE (D-N.J.), Tom ReedThomas (Tom) W. ReedA quiet, overlooked revolution in congressional power Bipartisan Senate group offers new help to state, local governments GOP Rep. Pete King to buck party, vote for Democrats' coronavirus relief bill MORE (R-N.Y.), and other House members, crafted a major public policy challenge, and introduced that bill in a coordinated fashion. The leaders did not have a role. And yet, because it has such widespread bipartisan support, it should be brought up for a vote.

Quietly, that represents a procedural revolution. If, suddenly, rank-and-file members of Congress realize they have the leverage to draft and pass bipartisan legislation, leaders in both houses will be put on notice. Those put in positions of power have a responsibility to the country, as represented by the members of each respective chamber, beyond their parties. And if they fail to serve the popular will, members have a way to force the issue.

With the country caught amid a crisis, this is no time to talk about silver linings. But we should applaud this effort by frustrated members to steer the legislative process in a better direction. This could mean leadership’s power has peaked, and the rank-and-file’s power has finally reached its low ebb at long last. By reclaiming power for the legislators who are directed by the Constitution to establish national policy, partisan overreach may finally undo a dysfunctional trend decades in the making.

Nancy Jacobson is CEO and founder No Labels, a group that seeks to move Washington beyond partisan gridlock and toward solutions to challenges faced by the country.