Change House Rules to Fix Our Broken Congress

The speaker of the House of Representatives is third in line to the presidency and has almost total power to determine how, when, and if legislation gets considered on the House floor. And yet, the American people currently have little say over who gets the speaker position, how they get it, and how they do the job. 

That’s a big problem but also an opportunity. In fact, the election of a new House speaker next January presents a once-in-a-generation opportunity for the American people to change how speakers get elected and change the rules of Congress so bipartisan legislation actually stands a chance. 

This the aim of The Speaker Project, a new No Labels initiative that begins with the premise that no real change will come to Washington until congressional rules are changed in a way that forces the body to be responsive to the will of the American people.  

1. What is The Speaker Project? The House of Representatives is governed by rules and procedures that concentrate too much power in the wrong places, be it the speaker’s office or small, ideological factions that hold the rest of Congress hostage. When this happens, bipartisan ideas almost always die.

The Speaker Project aims to change these rules. No Labels will spend 2018 mobilizing citizens to make their vote for any House candidate contingent on that candidate’s support for a speaker nominee who will commit to real rules changes that provide an opening for bipartisan ideas and legislation.

2. How will The Speaker Project make Congress more productive? There are several instances in recent years where legislation that could garner majority — even super majority support — in the House never even came up for a vote. A notable example was the failed immigration reform effort in the House in 2006.

Four times since 2017, the bipartisan House Problem Solvers Caucus released or endorsed ambitious proposals dealing with health care; immigration and border security; infrastructure and gun safety. In each case, their proposals also had strong citizen support in public polling. 

These are the kinds of ideas that at most times in American history would have become law. But none of these proposals even received a vote on the House floor. Why? Because House rules — which are controlled by the speaker — make it virtually impossible. 

3. How do the rules governing Congress get decided? Unlike the Senate, each time a new House is seated, its members can create their own rules for how they will operate. On the first day of the new Congress, and after the vote for speaker, the House votes on the formal  package, which dictates the procedural operations of the governing body for the next two years. For example, in 2017 the House voted to change rules about taking photos from the chamber floor and make it easier for Congress to take federal control of public lands. 

4. What is the most significant rule change proposed in The Speaker Project? The most consequential is The Speaker Project’s proposal to “Vacate the Motion to Vacate.” This would eliminate a single House member’s ability to precipitate a career-killing vote of no confidence (a “motion to vacate”) against the speaker. The mere threat of this maneuver has caused speakers to shy away from working with a president or lawmakers from the other party. 

No Labels is not demanding lawmakers endorse all or even most ideas in The Speaker Project book, released this week. But No Labels believes substantive rules reform of some kind should be non-negotiable for any American who cares about reversing this dysfunction in Washington.

5. Is there any precedent for members of Congress using the election of a speaker to force through rule changes? There is! In 1923 a group of “progressive Republicans” looked to change the House rules and have Congress pay more attention to problems affecting farmers. These progressives declared they would not elect a speaker until their demands were met. Their plan worked; despite immense pressure from colleagues, the progressives banded together and blocked the speaker vote nine separate times. Ultimately, the mainstream Republican party conceded to the progressives’ demands. This story highlights the power of a small, committed coalition looking to create change. 

A dramatic floor fight over the speaker election or a rules package isn’t the preferred option. It would be contentious and controversial. And ideally, speaker candidates could be persuaded to support rules reforms in advance. This is the carrot option. But the stick is available as a last resort; it has been used before.

No Labels is an organization of Democrats, Republicans, and independents working to bring American leaders together to solve problems.

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