Reforming Congressional Culture: A Four-Step Plan

Changing the majority party in Congress is no guarantee of changing how Congress works.  The American people consider both parties to be out-of-touch, and they demand a change in the very culture of Congress.

The Heritage Foundation has a plan that would give more power to rank-and-file members of Congress and would yield less of it to party leaders.  This reconfiguration of the power structure to bring about a broad-based, bottom-up House of Representatives would jibe with the Constitutional design of a true “people’s House,” replacing the current top-down system dominated by party leaders such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D, CA). 

In the House, some of the most important powers are granted by the internal rules of the Democratic Caucus and the Republican Conference.  Those groups give party leaders leverage not found in the formal rules of the House.  The Constitution grants no express authority to the Speaker, to the Senate’s President pro tempore, nor to any other person in the legislative branch, so their powers are based solely upon what Representatives and Senators choose to yield to those officers: no more, no less. 

These internal rules are set to be adopted during the week of November 15th.  The deadline for action, then, is when party caucuses convene and allocate power in November, not when the House convenes and approves the allocations in January.

Heritage’s proposal is titled “Four Immediate Reforms to Change the Culture of Congress.”  The adoption of these reforms would elicit changes that elections cannot; elections alter who runs the House but do not address how it is run.  The underlying system currently in place has made that body out of touch with the American people.  The tenure of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has shown us the dangers of a system that concentrates too much power in the hands of too few political party leaders in Congress.

Rules of each party give party leaders excessive leverage over committee and chairmanship appointments in general, and over major slots in particular.  Each party’s Steering Committee, which nominally makes appointments to standing committees, is by design dominated by party leaders and their allies.

Other key appointments directly bypass the Steering Committees.  The head of each party—not the Steering Committee—chooses who will serve on the “select” and “joint” committees. 

The Rules Committee is a key part of this control because it governs what happens on the floor of the House.  As its own website proclaims, the Rules Committee functions as an “arm of the leadership” rather than being accountable to the entire Congress.  The current party rules give the Speaker and Minority Leader personal control over all members of the Rules Committee. 

For example, House Republican Conference Rules 12 and 13 grant sole appointive power to their potential Speaker-Designee over the chairs and all GOP members of the Rules Committee, the Administration Committee, and all select and joint committees of the House.

Likewise, the Speaker and minority leader decide who serves on the House Administration Committee, which handles operations and budgeting within the House and how resources of funds, space, and staff are allocated or denied to Members.

Heritage’s proposal (online here) is a useful guide to how this party-run system operates now and how it should be corrected to make the House more responsive to the will of the American people. 

Citizens have been complaining that Congress needs to be more responsive to the public and less controlled by Washington’s ways.  This proposal is a solid first step.