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Examining the Problem Solvers Caucus proposed rules changes

In her bid to regain the Speaker’s gavel, Rep. Nancy Pelosi has been quietly meeting and assuaging members who were previously dead-set on opposing her nomination. And, in typical fashion, Pelosi has turned a few of her former opponents into current supporters. For example, Pelosi flipped Rep. Marcia Fudge after promising her a subcommittee chairship in exchange for her Speaker vote.

The bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, however, still remains a formidable obstacle. A solid chunk of the Problem Solvers—including nine Democrats—pledged to withhold their speakership votes from any candidate who doesn’t support their ‘Break the Gridlock’ reform package. The Caucus’s original package consisted of 10 proposed reforms designed to “make the House work again for the American people” by granting more procedural rights to rank-and-file members.

But as of Monday morning, the Caucus had reduced their demands to three specific asks in return for supporting Pelosi:

  1. When a bill receives 290 cosponsors (or three-fifths of Congress), it will go to the House floor for debate and a timely vote.
  2. When an amendment (a proposed change) to a bill has at least 20 Democratic and 20 Republican cosponsors, it will get a debate and a vote when that bill is considered on the floor.
  3. Every Congress, each Member will be allowed to introduce one bill for debate and a vote on a committee on which he/she serves. The bill must be germane to that committee’s jurisdiction and have at least one cosponsor from the other party.

The Caucus’s proposals are broadly aimed at loosening leaders’ procedural hold on the process in committee and on the floor. In theory, this strengthens rank-and-file members’ leverage over the process. For example, securing votes for bills with 290 cosponsors or amendments with 40 bipartisan cosponsors has the potential to force the Speaker’s hand. Requiring debate and votes for bills introduced by every member in every committee could substantially affect chairs’ gatekeeping power. Committees would be forced to address several different bills that may not otherwise be considered. Each of these proposals, to varying degrees, would shift power from leaders to the rank-and-file, which is a small step away from the concentrated power speakers have accumulated in recent decades.

Unfortunately, the proposals are not very ambitious, which is likely a sign of the resistance they have met within the chamber. For example, the first two proposals simply codify rules already largely in practice. For example, bills with 290 cosponsors or amendments with 40 bipartisan cosponsors typically do not face many obstacles. There are a handful of cases in which bills or amendments with broad bipartisan support are stopped by powerful leaders. But typically, these types of legislation make their way through the process. Codifying this rule is unlikely to release a flood of bipartisan lawmaking.

Further, these changes are unlikely to stem the worst practices of the current process. For example, mandating that an amendment with 40 cosponsors receive a floor vote will not stop the Rules Committee from potentially waiving the rule prior to consideration, or failing to alert members to a Rules Committee hearing early enough to allow for the cosponsor process to unfold. In other words, if the Speaker knows that an amendment with 20 cosponsors from each party (no small feat by itself!) is possible, she may be motivated to spring the vote on the chamber before the amendment has a chance to rack up supporters.

Leaders keep rank-and-file members in the dark for a reason. These changes will not prohibit the Speaker from manipulating the process or the calendar to their advantage.

Lastly, the reforms intend to create opportunities for bipartisanship. The fact remains that if bipartisanship was politically rewarding we would see more of it. The political and electoral incentives that have produced our current environment remain. Members support processes that will protect them from electoral vulnerability. In other words, the reason bills are blocked, amendments rejected, and votes prohibited is because members often do not want to take politically risky votes. And while this has a detrimental effect on democratic accountability, it serves members’ interests. Will members value the ability to get a vote (vote, not passage) on a pet issue more than they fear political retribution from their party and voters? That’s highly debatable.

The weakness of these proposals may be why Pelosi may agree to them. She concedes little power while retaining a coalition to become the next Speaker. In doing so, she can also claim she took steps her predecessors did not, theoretically allowing more members to affect the legislative agenda and creating bipartisan incentives for entrepreneurial members on specific legislation. However, the overall effect of these changes depends on their construction and wording. And unfortunately, as we have learned over and over again, even the most iron-clad rule cannot prevent the process’s worst abuses.

But, no matter the fate of these specific reforms, the Problem Solvers Caucus deserves credit for creating leverage and forcing a conversation party leaders would much prefer to keep behind closed doors. The Caucus’s members have attached their names to many legislators’ frustrations, remained united enough to generate media and member attention, and will likely force concessions from those with power to grant them. For true and lasting reforms to succeed, more members need follow suit.

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Topics: Reform Efforts