If the Republicans win enough seats in Congress this November, GOP leader John Boehner will become the next speaker of the House. The Ohio Republican would assume the gavel amid a maelstrom of polarization not seen since the late nineteenth century.
The partisan storm has caused considerable damage to Congress's reputation. According to Gallup polling from August and September, congressional approval is now in the high teens, lower than it was in both 2006 and 1994 – two other midterm elections that ousted the incumbent congressional majorities.
Further adding to the comity deficit is a president who has jettisoned any pretense of post-partisan style or substance since his election. And unlike Bill Clinton, who accommodated the new Republican majority following the 1994 election, many believe Obama lacks that kind of ideological dexterity.
So would a GOP majority in Congress mean Washington gets sucked even deeper into the vortex of gridlock? Perhaps. Partisan bickering comes with the territory. Americans share less consensus than you think. And political elites in Washington often exploit those differences.
But after two decades in Washington, Boehner recognizes that people shape institutions and institutions shape people in equal measure. He gave an important speech last week at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) that underscored this theme, identifying an often-ignored cause of polarization – the legislative process itself.
Changing the process won’t fix every congressional ailment. But Boehner believes it could help.
He knows that fights over legislative procedure are now more common than disputes over policy. Lowering the temperature in Congress on procedural battles is an important step in legislative recovery.
No doubt deep divisions over spending, taxes, or government regulation policies produce some of the differences we see in Congress. Republicans and Democrats deeply disagree on issues like how to balance the budget, stimulate the economy, and the best steps to improve the environment.
Yet a new source of controversy now infects the legislative body. As Boehner observes, the modern Congress rarely debates issues and alternatives the way they used to, conducting substantive policy debates.
Instead, the majority now usually blocks the minority from offering amendments. So the minority responds by offering politically painful procedural motions. Then the majority retaliates by “conjuring up new ways to shut the minority out even further.”
Boehner calls this “a cycle of gridlock.”
The recent tax debate before Congress adjourned last week illustrates this point. Neither the House nor the Senate scheduled votes on President Obama’s policy to extend tax cuts for the middle class because of procedural concerns. Why? Because the Democratic leadership’s position would have lost.
A bipartisan majority in the House supported extending tax cuts for everyone, not just the middle class.
As a result, no floor debate was scheduled. No amendments were offered The House had no opportunity to express its collective will. The speaker’s ability to schedule legislation (or not) determined the outcome. When lawmakers cannot vote on alternatives, Congress fights about process, not substance.
This happens a lot these days. As Boehner noted, in his AEI speech: “This Congress is the first in our history that has not allowed one bill to be considered under an open amendment process--not one. The current freshman class has served an entire term in Congress without ever having operated under an open rule.”
Yet substituting procedural fights for policy battles is a relatively new phenomenon.
Political Scientist Sean M. Theriault identified this trend recently in his book Party Polarization in Congress. He notes that little of the increase in partisan polarization is due to fights on amendments or final passage votes. “In less partisan days,” Theriault writes, “all members agreed that all members could amend all parts of a bill…Today members vigorously fight about which members can amend which parts of the bill.”
Boehner’s speech highlights many of these procedural problems, offering a kind of parliamentary Glasnost that could help.
He proposes a new level of transparency, committing to make all bills available online at least three days before Congress votes.
Boehner also promises more open rules, allowing the House to work its will and producing more debate over policy than procedure. Lawmakers “should assume that their bills are on the floor, they’ll be subject to an open rule,” Boehner said. “If all committee chairmen and ranking members had this mentality, the result would be better legislation, and better legislators.”
No doubt restrictive procedures are both a cause and consequence of partisanship. But opening up the process along the lines Boehner suggests could help cool things down and actually produce more bipartisan voting on floor amendments and final passage.
Boehner’s procedural reforms won’t heal everything that ails Washington, but he has accurately diagnosed part of the problem – the growing number of fights over legislative procedure. Adjusting the rules so debate focuses more on substance and less on process grievances is a step toward recovery.