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It’s Time for Better House Rules | Commentary

By Andrew Douglas and Rob Richie The Freedom Caucus has made rule changes a central issue as House Republicans effort to select a new speaker. Their proposals would give greater power to rank-and-file Republicans, but they run counter to the intent of our nation’s founders and would likely aggravate the chamber’s dysfunction. However, rules that empower all legislators would have the opposite effect, and act as a catalyst for cooperation across party lines.  

The caucus is calling for more power for Republican members in selecting committee chairmen and prioritizing legislation, and for codifying the “Hastert Rule” to block bills that aren’t backed by a majority within the party. While empowering individual legislators is a noble goal, as each represents a constituency that deserves access to power, the unequal partisan impact of the proposed rules conflicts with the advice of Madison and Washington, who warned against the dangers of excessive partisanship and majority factions.  

A better solution is to devolve power to all members, regardless of their party. Evidence from state legislatures suggests that more democratic procedures can improve policymaking. Best Practices for Collaborative Policymaking, a recent report from FairVote and the Bipartisan Policy Center, shows that state chambers pass more legislation and more bipartisan legislation when the legislative agenda is set more democratically.  

This phenomenon is strongest when speakers and committee chairs lack the power to block votes. Dozens of chambers prevent leaders from killing bills in committee or on the floor, and eight chambers do not allow leaders to block votes at either stage. Legislation with the support of majorities in committees and on the floor can proceed unimpeded, regardless of the views of party leaders.  

Liberating the legislative agenda means fewer obstacles for legislation, and more opportunities for the cross-partisan solutions that leaders in Congress and state chambers often block in favor of inaction or partisan alternatives. Federal policymaking works best when members of different parties follow the example set by legislators like Ted Kennedy and Orrin Hatch, whose cooperation from the left and right led Congress to advance major policies. We need more opportunities for such policymaking, not fewer.  

Removing obstacles to cross-partisan legislation could have a big impact. After all, the number of House bills with bipartisan co-sponsorship has declined only slightly in recent decades. What has changed is the proportion of these bills that are given a floor vote.  

As an example, a more democratically run House would likely have passed the major immigration bill that passed in the Senate on a bipartisan 68-32 in 2013, but was blocked by Speaker John A. Boehner. Fairer rules for setting the agenda would also eliminate obstacles to the bipartisan resolutions that have become increasingly necessary for the House to avoid shutting down the government. Instead, majority-backed bills like these are often blocked in the name of the Hastert Rule, or similar sentiments held by committee chairmen.  

Similar benefits can also be found in states where selection of the speaker and committee chairmen is more decentralized and bipartisan. For example, South Carolina’s House of Representatives and Nebraska’s unicameral legislature allow members of both parties to elect committee chairs directly, resulting in more ideological diversity among those elected, and a sense that they represent the members of their committee, not the majority party or its leaders.  

If committee members from both parties were allowed to elect their chairs organically, Democrats might sometimes work with Republicans to elect chairs ready to consider worthy proposals no matter their source. Legislative priorities would not be preordained by leadership, but instead be set by ad hoc majorities from within the committees themselves.  

Some may fear that a more open agenda would lead to legislative anarchy. However, state experience shows that rules such as capping the number of bills legislators are allowed to sponsor can ensure that the chamber’s time is well spent and real priorities given attention.  

It’s time for Congress to live up our founders’ ideals and to learn from state examples that show decentralized legislative leadership can be a boon for bipartisanship and productivity. Leaders should no longer block bills supported by majorities just because they depend on significant bipartisan support. All representatives should have a meaningful role in choosing the Speaker and committee chairs, not just the majority party. The Freedom Caucus and all members should seize this opportunity to make their chamber live up to the founders’ ideal of “the people’s house.”  

Andrew Douglas is a policy analyst at FairVote. Rob Richie is FairVote’s executive director.
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