Congress is broken. The Speaker’s race is an opportunity for conservatives to change the rules in a way that will solve some of the problems plaguing Congress. It is time to restore a degree of trust with the American people. The speaker’s race should become a proxy battle over changes to the institution that disperse power in a way that allows members of both parties to participate in the legislative process.
There is a band of brothers in the House who are waging a war on leadership to impose some rules and changes. The House Freedom Caucus has listed some excellent reforms that will restore the people’s voice in Congress. It seems like a simple ask to make it a condition precedent to voting for Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) as the next Speaker of the House to adopt these changes. If the rules were improved to allow rank-and-file members to sufficiently participate in the legislative process, there would be no need for a battle for the Speaker’s gavel in the next Congress.
The bottom line is that both parties have dropped the ball when it comes to governing. The polls show that the American people have zero trust in Congress. Real Clear Politics pegs the Congress as a whole with a 23.5% approval rating versus a 60.3% disapproval rating. That puts Congress underwater by about 37%. The leaders of both parties are also disliked by the American people. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) is underwater by 20% and her Senate counterpart, Senator Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) is a minus 12%. Republican Leader McCarthy is not doing much better at a -17% net approval rating with Sen. Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) bringing up the rear at negative 39%. Those numbers are embarrassing.
In the face of these numbers, Congress has decided to ignore inflation in the Lame Duck post-election session in favor of passing a bloated omnibus spending bill and passing a National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) loaded up with unrelated items. The fact is that Congress has devolved into a dysfunctional institution where it seems normal that leadership waits until days before Christmas to bully rank-and-file members into voting for massive spending bills or missing the holidays. If the rules of both chambers allowed more participation by the back bench members, there would be some real fights over spending and inflation.
Conservatives are angry and the House Freedom Caucus (HFC) has taken the lead in fighting for change. One strategy to impose rules changes that might work is to deny anybody from winning the Speaker’s race until changes are agreed to. The most important rules change that should be a line in the sand is to allow open rules and to open up the legislative process. The HFC proposes that Members of Congress “must have the ability to participate in making laws.” They cite the fact no member “has been allowed to offer an amendment in an open process to change legislation being considered on the floor since May 2016.” The Republican 115th Congress broke a record for most bills considered without amendment. This is one of those bad records like being the NFL all-time leader in interceptions or the MLB strike-out leader as a batter. Not good.
Other rules change is to make it virtually impossible to avoid roll call votes. Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY) was almost exiled from the House because he demanded a roll call vote on the largest spending bill in history, Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act). The bill clocked in at $2 trillion, yet the House rules did not require any member to go on the record voting for this bill that contained a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) that was an easy mark for fraud. A simple rules change would demand unanimous consent to vitiate a roll call vote of the House.
One outcome of these rule changes, if successful, would be to show that Republicans are in line with our Founders in allowing the populace to be part of the legislative process with the opportunity for all members to participate. Contrast this with the Senate, controlled by Democrats, who never allow amendment votes, unless the leader approves, and routinely abuses the Senate’s rules to block all amendments by Senators of both parties. The Senate is run in a tyrannical manner and rules change in the House would show that Republicans care about making our democratic institutions more democratic.
Maybe the American people will stop hating Congress if Republican leaders can show some humility by allowing the body to become more participatory and representative of the people who elected them.
Brian Darling is the former Counsel for Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY).