Why Is Congress So Messed Up?
A Republican has the answer and some good ideas. No, really.
Note: This site can also be accessed by entering FeathersOfHope.net in your browser window.
For new readers, here are links to a few previous posts that will bring you up to date on what the Feathers of Hope network has been doing :
Wait, Exactly How Will We Do This? — (January 28)
Replacing McCarthy - A Progress Report — (February 16)
Moderate Republicans? Really? — (March 2)
Spread The Word, Write or Call Today — (April 6)
Escape From MAGA World — (May 3)
Feathers of Hope is a network of ordinary citizens committed to advocating for the removal and replacement of Kevin McCarthy as Speaker of the House, thereby diminishing the power and influence of MAGA extremists in the chamber.
We have been urging moderate Republicans and Democrats in the House of Representatives to form a temporary bipartisan majority voting bloc for the purpose of passing a motion to “vacate the chair” and elect a new Republican Speaker who owes nothing to the minority MAGA group.
Extremists have the floor . . . again.
In last week’s post (Remember the Debt Ceiling Fight? It's Back.), we lamented the colossal waste of time and energy that’s about to be expended on the floor of the House as a series of appropriations bills come up for debate:
“The entire cycle of right-wing tantrum-throwing, extortionist threats and dramatic ultimatums is about to start again. Inevitably this will lead to the same scripted ending, when a bipartisan majority comes to the rescue just (in time).”
As predicted, that same old coterie of MAGA zealots is forcing more divisive and pointless floor votes. The first of these is for amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act. The NDAA provides funding for the military and in normal times is routinely passed with near unanimous support.
That’s not to say that there’s no controversy about military spending. There’s plenty. But those issues are debated and decided in the massive 59-member Armed Services Committee, where members work out the details and vote on the finished product. Once the agreed-upon bill is brought to the floor, both parties’ leaders generally support it. This year’s NDAA was passed out of committee by a 58-1 vote, the very definition of broad bipartisan support.
Nevertheless, Speaker Kevin McCarthy has again capitulated to MAGA demands, allowing amendments to the NDAA to be introduced and voted on. So again there will be bitter fights over issues like abortion, diversity, and trans health care. And after all the heated rhetoric, the result will be a bill that stands no chance of passing in the Senate, leading to yet more wasted time and energy to reconcile House and Senate versions.
Then we can expect to see yet another round when the farm bill is introduced. And then again, and again — all with breathless news coverage and TV appearances for everyone who’s involved in making things worse.
Why does this cycle keep repeating itself? What can be done about it?
The obvious answer to the first question is that the current Speaker has traded away his authority to the extremist MAGA minority. Consequently, they are allowed to dominate the proceedings and demand concessions at every turn.
And the obvious answer to the second is the one we’ve been advocating all along: Remove and replace Kevin McCarthy with a moderate Republican Speaker who owes nothing to the MAGA faction.
But there is another perspective, one that asks a more fundamental question
Why is it possible for a small minority to subvert the work of Congress?
Five years ago, after completing his first term in the House of Representatives, Mike Gallagher (R-WI) drew on his experience to suggest How to Salvage Congress .
Mr. Gallagher is one of the most erudite members of Congress, holding a PhD and 2 Masters Degrees. He’s currently Chairman of the well-respected House “China Committee”. In his opinion,
“The problem is a defective process and a power structure that, whichever party is in charge, funnels all power to leadership . . .”
In other words, while in this moment it’s the weakness of the Speaker that allows MAGA to dominate, it’s actually the weakness of House membership as a whole that allows the domination. That weakness helps to explain why members so often vote in ways that are at odds with their beliefs or preferences. There’s nothing to gain and much to lose by defying leadership.
Even in the best of times, “power in the House has become highly concentrated at the top.” So whether the Speaker is strong and independent, or is weak and indebted to a minority faction, there’s little that rank-and-file members can do to influence the day to day functioning of the chamber.
Representative Gallagher has some very simple but far-reaching suggestions about how this power dynamic can be shifted. And for those who have a taste for structural analysis, his full essay in the November, 2018 issue of Atlantic Monthly is highly recommended: How to Salvage Congress . But it’s worth noting one proposal that’s particularly substantive:
Committee members should themselves elect their own chairperson, rather than have them be appointed by the party leader.
“This would change the entire incentive structure in Congress. To have any chance of becoming chairman one day, ambitious members would first need to prove themselves as productive citizens of a committee.
They would be expected to show up to their committee hearings, to understand their committee’s issues, and to work with their colleagues to advance bills.”
The point here is that party leadership maintains control by granting chairmanships to members who are “team players”. Team players are not those who demonstrate policy expertise or legislative skills, but those who conistently vote with the leadership.
Reforming how Congress works is certainly not on anyone’s radar right now. As Mr. Gallagher himself admits in the Atlantic essay, it’s boring. No one wants to talk about it on TV, that’s for sure. But he also gave this prescient warning:
“It’s precisely because congressional processes are boring, byzantine, and bloodless that they can be exploited.”
Whatever else may be said about the minority MAGA extremists, they are doing a masterful job of exploiting the congressional processes. And the only way to counter their exercise of this concentrated power is to replace a weak and compromised Speaker McCarthy with a strong independent Speaker empowered by a bipartisan majority.
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