Democrats should be careful what they wish for

Democrats should be careful what they wish for
© Greg Nash

In anticipation of regaining control of the House of Representatives, Democrats are studying ways to reform the rules to establish a more transparent and less fractious 116th Congress. The history of past efforts suggests that the probability of unintended consequences should temper any exuberant commitment to “reform.”

Nearly a half-century ago, 76 freshmen Democrats joined with veteran reformers to modernize House rules. Their first target was the seniority system that gave disproportionate authority to committee chairmen, mostly southerners, who owed their longevity to the good luck of running in one-party districts. Far more conservative than the increasingly liberal Democratic Caucus, many chairmen voted over 85 percent of the time with the Republicans

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Subjecting prospective chairs to Caucus approval proved effective: three chairmen were removed, and most of the remainder either soon retired or rapidly developed more Democratic-like voting records. Other reforms, including looser rules for offering amendments and providing additional staff resources for the minority, became weapons in the hands of an increasingly combative Republican Party with aspirations of winning control of the House.

In the intervening decades, voters have ideologically sorted themselves within the parties, which are locked in a perpetual battle for control. That competition has serious implications for the open House current reformers endorse. Narrow margins, unrestrained special interest money, inflammatory issues and social media reward those who devise crippling and embarrassing amendments. As a result, both parties have circumscribed the amendatory process lest members be subjected to recorded votes designed to injure rather than improve.

The current GOP majority has taken the restrictiveness of the rules to an unparalleled level. Although both Speakers John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerMeadows looks to make his move Fractious GOP vows to unify in House minority Three Republicans battle to succeed Meadows at House Freedom Caucus MORE and Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanHouse Republicans move to block Yemen war-powers votes for rest of Congress Stefanik: GOP leaders need to step up their female recruitment efforts McConnell agrees to vote on Trump-backed criminal justice bill MORE promised a more “inclusive” amendatory process, they backtracked spectacularly. In fact, Republicans recently set a new record for the most closed rules – those allowing no amendments to be offered – for a single session, currently closing in on 100.

Democratic reformers are now pledging less rigid controls. “We’re going to have to have a more accommodating process where we give more members a voice, including members who have some ideas that we may not like,” says Rep. Jim McGovern, the likely Rules Committee chairman should Democrats regain the majority. That sounds meritorious, but a more open process might well conflict with former (and possible future) speaker Nancy PelosiNancy Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiPelosi, Dem rebels near deal on term limits for party leaders Pelosi divides Democrats with term-limit proposal Oval Office clash ups chances of shutdown MORE’s promise of a floor based on “civility, fairness and transparency.”

In a highly polarized and competitive House, an open floor has been an invitation to unrelenting political warfare. Those Democrats of the 1970s discovered as much when GOP strategists, as one recalled, “took advantage of” loose rules to target vulnerable Democrats. The number of recorded votes skyrocketed from 177 in 1969 to 661 in 1975 and over 800 the next year, many imbued with political, rather than legislative, motivations.

Reformers should be similarly cautious about embracing changes promoted by the 48 member bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, including one requiring that any bill brought to the House floor under a closed rule or under a fast track procedure receive a supermajority of two-thirds to pass. Another reform group, No Labels, would require that the Speaker be elected with bipartisan support.

The problem with such proposals is that they may handicap the ability of the majority to govern. Certainly, it would be desirable if our politics (including the electorate) were more geared towards honest problem-solving than towards stigmatizing opponents and setting them up for election defeat.

Superimposing rules that presume bipartisanship on a hyper-partisan institution is a prescription for gridlock and legislative subversion. There is every reason to believe that a Republican minority – in all likelihood comprised of largely hard-right survivors of a Democratic wave – would exploit such reforms to obstruct the policy goals of the majority, just as their ancestors did in the ‘70s by their own admission.

Reformers would do well to consider the observation of conservative intellectual Irving Kristol who likened Congress’ periodic reform efforts to “spasmodic self-abuse” and warned “reforms aiming to solve today's problems are likely to constitute the problems of tomorrow.”

To diminish partisan gridlock, Congress needs to address a plethora of factors that reward extremism and intransigence: a hyper-partisan media (including social media), disproportionate influence of single issue grassroots groups, a primary system that rewards extreme voices, and especially, a campaign finance system that empowers a well-endowed few. Only then will reasoned debate and bipartisanship have a chance for success on the House floor.

John A. Lawrence, former chief of staff to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, is a visiting professor at the University of California Washington Center and the author of “The Class of ’74: Congress After Watergate and the Roots of Partisanship.” Follow him on Twittter @JohnALawrenceDC.