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Leadership Control Is Faulted for House Ills

On three successive days in late September, three different entities identified the same source of the dysfunction plaguing the House: The majority party leadership is micromanaging the legislative process at the expense of Member and committee participation. The question now is whether anything will change when Republicans are back in charge. 

On Sept. 28, former House Parliamentarian Charles Johnson appeared at the Woodrow Wilson Center with his U.K. counterpart, former House of Commons Clerk Sir William McKay, to discuss their book, “Parliament and Congress.” Johnson spoke of the corrosive partisanship affecting the House today that undermines the normal legislative process. In the book, he noted that the Speaker, “through her appointment of the Rules Committee and her other considerable authorities, ultimately dictates a process … to supersede committee work products,” and to minimize “individual Minority Members’ rights to offer amendments and to participate in conferences with the Senate.”  

The book goes on to recount how then-Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and her leadership team promised a return to the “regular order” and a fair and open process in 2006. But when they took power in 2007, “the new majority proceeded to endorse the more partisan processes followed by her predecessor in the interests of certainty of time and issue, and marginalization of the minority.”  

My data on special rules restricting the right of Members to offer amendments confirm that assessment. Over the past two Congresses, Democrats have become worse than Republicans were at their worst, producing restrictive amendment rules on 86 percent and 99 percent of legislation, respectively, versus 81 percent under Republicans in the 109th Congress.

The next day, House Rules Committee Republicans released their report card on the Democratic majority, titled “The Wrong Way Congress.” The report charges that Democrats have “pursued their agenda at the expense of the House as a basic institution of our democracy,”  “rewritten much of the major legislation,” “engineered the exclusion of opposing viewpoints” and “steered around the regular legislative process to support a majority driven by partisan concerns.” The report cites processes used for health care, stimulus and cap-and-trade bills as examples.

On Sept. 30, Minority Leader John Boehner told an American Enterprise Institute audience that the American people “have every right to be fed up” because Congress is failing its mission to serve them. The Ohio Republican was quick to admit both parties are to blame for this sorry state of affairs and that it is now up to Republicans to fix the problem.  

Echoing Woodrow Wilson’s 1885 academic critique of Congress, Boehner observed that “the institution does not function, does not deliberate and seems incapable of acting on the will of the people.”  Instead, it is driven by “leaders [who] overreach because the rules allow them to,” and “legislators [who] duck their responsibilities because the rules help them to.”

Boehner’s solutions repeat themes summoned by previous beleaguered minorities who have promised change if returned to power: a restoration of fairness, openness, the regular order, committee deliberations and Member participation in the legislative process.  

On specifics, Boehner wants to restore a measure of autonomy to committees, re-emphasize the importance of authorization bills and committee oversight, keep appropriations bills to manageable sizes and allow cutting amendments.  “Instead of clamping down even further,” he said, “we should open things up and let the battle of ideas help break down the scar tissue between the two parties … Instead of selling our Members short, let’s give them a chance to do their jobs. Let’s let legislators legislate again.”  

Boehner did not eschew partisanship in favor of bipartisanship for its own sake, noting that, “The true test is whether our ideas, policies and values are able to stand the test of a fair debate and a fair vote.”  

The refreshing benefits of such a change would be not only the re-engagement of Members in constructive policymaking but the enlightenment of the people about the policy issues involved — something lost in rushing through thousand-page bills with little debate or amendment. (A side benefit Boehner did not mention is there would be a lot less fighting between the parties over unfair procedures.)

So why should we think things will really be any different under Speaker John Boehner than they were under Speakers Gingrich, Hastert or Pelosi? I am willing to give Boehner the benefit of the doubt because I know him to be a genuine institutionalist who earned his spurs by working tirelessly through the committee system over his 20 years in the House.

Notwithstanding such good intentions, the question remains whether Members are ready and willing to be weaned off dependence on their leaders — with all the attendant procedural shortcuts, efficiencies and free rides — and resume the heavy lifting of being real legislators. Some political scientists tell us that party leaders in Congress are mere “agents,” while their Members are the “principals” who call the shots. I am old-fashioned enough to think party leaders can still lead by setting a tone and operating style that encourage and reward Member participation in the legislative process. The extent of my naiveté will soon be known. 

Don Wolfensberger is director of the Congress Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and former staff director of the House Rules Committee. 

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