Speaker John Boehner deserves credit for promising greater opportunities for the minority party to have its amendments considered. Under his speakership, the Republican-dominated House has actually accepted some Democratic amendments. The House now has fewer closed rules and more “modified open” rules (which permit at least some challenges to the leadership’s agenda). But whether the procedure will be open or closed on any particular matter remains at the discretion of the majority leadership, and in cases where the political commitment is particularly strong (for example, on the Republican challenge to health-care legislation passed during Democratic control), the promises of openness have been quickly abandoned. The House should adopt rules guaranteeing that any proposal receiving a significant level of support—say, 100 co-sponsors—would automatically be allowed a committee hearing, an up-or-down vote in committee, and then, even if it fails in committee, a vote on the House floor. Some majority members may abandon the team and vote with their constituents (or their own consciences), but isn’t that what we elect representatives for? And since the rules for House floor debate are determined not by parliamentary procedure but by a Rules Committee constituted anew for each session of Congress, equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats should sit on that committee (as opposed to the current practice of conferring a big advantage on the majority).
Change the leadership structure of congressional committees.
In our current system, in which a small majority may have all the power and a large minority none, the chair of a congressional committee or subcommittee (always a majority-party member) decides whether a proposal will be considered and whose views will be solicited. We should change congressional rules to provide for a chairman from the majority party and a vice chairman from the minority (no such position exists in today’s Congress, except on certain special non-legislating committees); the vice chairman need not ascend to the chairmanship in the chairman’s absence, but each would have the authority to bring a bill forward and to invite expert witnesses to offer testimony. The process might be slower, but consideration of alternatives would be more thorough.
Whichever party holds the majority will resist these changes. Party leaders see committee hearings not as a means to evaluate proposals, but as tools to advance predetermined agendas. The current committee process is transactional, not deliberative. But using committees to bypass true deliberation undercuts the very purpose of a people’s legislature.
Fill committee vacancies by lot.
When I served on the Republican committee that decided other members’ committee assignments, I watched as party leaders sometimes refused to grant a slot to a member who was seen as unlikely to “go along,” or too inclined to exercise independent judgment, or “too nice” to spearhead the combat that had come to characterize committee “deliberations.” I was reminded of the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta H.M.S. Pinafore, in which Sir Joseph, a former member of Parliament who has been appointed Lord Admiral of the Queen’s Navy, recalls how he achieved such great success: “I always voted at my party’s call,” he sings, “and I never thought of thinking for myself at all.”
The derivation of leadership in Congress from an internal version of the party primary or convention is an artificial construct. In every informal congressional subgroup—the Human Rights Caucus, the Rust Belt Caucus, the Flat Tax Caucus—leaders are chosen without regard to party affiliation. Imagine how different the congressional dynamic would be if that practice prevailed in committee assignments. If three seats became open on a committee and five members sought appointment, the House could fill the positions by lot, thereby appointing committee members who were not beholden to party leaders for their selection and therefore not fearful that crossing party lines would cost them their position. They would be freer to vote as they saw fit. After all, their constituents chose them not only for their policies but for their temperaments, knowledge, experience, and values. Eventually, entire committees would be formed without any party division at all—merely members of Congress drawn together to consider problems and potential solutions.