Come Together: Break the Gridlock

August 18, 2018

When someone talks about “the rules,” what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Rules are boring, arbitrary, frustrating – maybe meant to be broken. But rules are important because they can influence and even determine the outcome of processes, including political processes. That’s why a bipartisan group of lawmakers is determined to change the rules governing the House of Representatives.

The Problem Solvers Caucus, a group of 23 Democrats and 23 Republicans in the House, have introduced a set of proposals called “Break the Gridlock.” The intent of the proposals is to encourage representatives to reach across the aisle instead of constantly voting along party lines. The (reasonable) theory behind their approach is that if both parties are involved in the legislative process, from setting budgets to making laws, both parties will be more invested in making them work.

A moment of opportunity is coming because after the 2018 elections, each party will choose its party leaders. Then, in January 2019, House members will choose a new Speaker of the House and vote on the rules that govern the way the House is run.

Members of the Problem Solvers Caucus are saying they will not support new party leaders or a new Speaker unless the candidates agree to change the rules.

The proposals as written are technical, and it helps to understand the abuses they are intended to curb.

Abuse number one on the Caucus’s list is the Motion to Vacate the Chair. This motion was used by a faction of conservative Republican representatives against Speaker John Boehner in 2015.

By threatening to withhold its support in a vote of no confidence, this faction would have given House Democrats enough votes to remove Boehner as the Speaker.

Boehner resigned before a vote of no confidence took place. Three years later, his successor Paul Ryan declined to run for his seat again, thus resigning as Speaker after his current term ends. Break the Gridlock proposals would replace the current Motion process with a petition for removal signed by one third of all members of the House, making it harder for a small group or faction to bully the House Speaker.

Other Break the Gridlock reforms are targeted against House rules giving the majority party almost complete control over the legislative process, including rules that govern which bills a committee will consider, who will testify at hearings, which bills can reach the House floor for votes, and who can offer amendments to those bills. One proposal in particular would ensure that bills with broad support (two-thirds of all 435 representatives) follow a fast track through the committee and onto the House floor for a vote.

As some commentators have pointed out, Break the Gridlock proposals could have gone further. One roadblock not addressed is the so-called “Hastert Rule,” named after the role played by former House Speaker Dennis Hastert in blocking a vote on the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2006. Passed overwhelmingly by a Republican-led Senate, Hastert nevertheless said he would not let a similar bill reach a House vote because most Republican members of the House did not support it. In Hastert’s opinion, his job as Speaker was to follow the wishes of “the majority of his majority.”

The Hastert Rule has been followed by House Speakers ever since, though to quote Peter Venckman from Ghostbusters, it’s actually more of a guideline than a rule. The bottom line, however, is that the ghost of Dennis Hastert allows a small minority of House representatives – one-fourth of all 435 members – to block any consideration of bills they oppose.

Reading through the list (its much longer) of House rules designed to block cooperation and concentrate power in the hands of the few, it’s hard not to conclude that the most important source of our current gridlock is not divisions among ordinary Americans. Polling shows that even on issues characterized as most divisive, like immigration, large percentages of Democrats and Republicans are in agreement on basic changes.

Instead, it seems that one of the most important causes of gridlock is procedural rules put in place by House majority members to keep their party in power. To break the gridlock, we have to change the rules – and loosen the grip of party leaders in Congress.

With the House so evenly split among Democrats and Republicans, and with the resignation of Paul Ryan as Speaker, the end of 2018 and the start of 2019 presents a unique opportunity to change the rules for the better. As Election Day approaches, call or write your members of Congress and let them know you want them to put country before party. Then spread the word to others who will do the same.

Further Reading:

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This article originally appeared in the August 18, 2018 issue of Wide Angle, our regular newsletter designed, we hope, to inform rather than inflame. Each edition brings you original articles by Common Ground Solutions, a quiz, and a round-up of news items — from across the political spectrum — that we think are worth reading. We make a special effort to cover good work being done to bridge political divides, and to offer constructive information on ways our readers can engage in the political process and make a difference on issues that matter to them.

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