JONATHAN COHN NOVEMBER 9, 2010
The big news about Congressional reform lately has been over on the Senate side, but I’ll remind everyone that Tom Mann and Norm Ornstein’s The Broken Branch, published just before the Democratic sweep of 2006, probably spent more time on the House. Will House reform return?
I’ll begin with the punch line: since about 1975, the House of Representatives has been the one part of the US government in which party majorities rule. That’s not going to change in 2011-2012. However, during that time the House has fluctuated between majority party rule and something close to majority party leadership tyranny, and it’s at least possible that the next Congress will lean towards the former.
To a large extent, the seemingly systematic corruption scandals in the DeLay House appear to be a thing of the past. Still, much of the Mann/Ornstein agenda is still relevant now. Generally, the critique from Mann and Ornstein, shared by many observers, was: not enough use of regular order and deliberative procedures, sometimes reaching the point of massive arbitrary abuse on the House floor; too much authority centralized with party leadership instead of dispersed to the committees; and, not enough opportunity for the minority party to offer its views.
Unlike the last time the GOP gained control of the House, this time Congressional reform was not among their main talking points. Still, it’s possible to see reforms, some of them positive, happening. There’s not much in the GOP “Pledge“ beyond a bunch of silly symbolic stuff (i.e. “read the bill” rhetoric).
The real process reforms in there have only a slim change of being enacted and staying enacted: there’s some verbiage about avoiding large omnibus bills and about having more open rules. It is likely that a smaller agenda will mean smaller bills, but that’s about policy, not process; if it improves the GOP negotiating position to include multiple items in an omnibus bill, you can expect them to do so, regardless of what they said in 2009. I also expect Republicans, whatever they say now, to use the Rules Committee to prevent tough votes for themselves while manufacturing as many tough votes for the remaining marginal Democrats as possible.
Beyond that, Republicans in the Pledge and elsewhere do criticize Nancy Pelosi for centralizing House governance. Historically, that’s mistaken, I believe. Still, many House observers believe that a better balance between the committees and the leadership would be a good thing. Will that happen under the Republicans? I think it’s possible.
On smaller issues, I don’t want to predict the outcome of the current GOP battle over an earmarks ban, but I think it’s safe to say that they won’t repeat the massive explosion of earmarks that took place the last time Republicans ran the Congress. Republicans are also promising open government; as usual, that will last only until real negotiations have to take place, at which point they’ll figure out how to have those deals made away from the cameras, whether or not it involves technically breaking those promises or not.
Overall, I’ve said several times that in my view, Nancy Pelosi was the first Speaker to maintain a healthy balance between party and committee leadership since Tip O’Neill (and therefore only the second under current House rules and norms), while continuing the tradition of giving the minority party less and less ability to influence legislation or even have their views debated. If I had to guess, I would expect John Boehner to attempt to follow her example, and to avoid the centralizing pattern practiced by Jim Wright and, most notably, Newt Gingrich. If that’s the case, then the committees will continue to be relatively important, but the Democrats will be thoroughly irrelevant and quite frustrated.