Pelosi's Problem Solvers Problem Solved
Wednesday afternoon Nancy Pelosi once again won the Democratic caucus’s nomination for speaker of the House. That morning, negotiating along with incoming Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern, she had secured eight additional votes in an agreement over rules reform with members of the centrist House Problem Solver’s caucus. The Problem Solvers, a group comprised equally of Democrats and Republicans, had been using the speaker vote as leverage to open up the legislative process to bipartisan bills.
In the run up to the caucus, the Problem Solvers and the think tank supporting them, No Labels, were criticized in a spate of articles casting doubt on these bipartisan motives.
The Daily Beast ran a piece citing leaked No Labels emails suggesting the organization and its president Nancy Jacobson had considered undermining Pelosi’s campaign. Pieces in the Atlantic and the Intercept questioned the organization’s electoral strategy and motives. And Paul Waldman wrote in the Washington Post that the group, and centrists more generally, practiced “cynical politics.”
No Labels co-founder, Brookings Institution fellow, and former adviser to Bill Clinton, William Galston, pushed back against the idea that the Democratic Problem Solvers were trying to undermine Pelosi. They were, he said, in favor of “Pelosi leading a caucus operating under reformed rules.” And he emphasized that, in the end, compromise was reached.
Before the vote, Pelosi had already signaled she was sympathetic with some of the proposed changes, and the eight Problem Solvers ended up giving ground on the reform package and supporting to Pelosi’s nomination. A potential ninth, Kurt Schrader (D-OR), decided the new rules didn’t go far enough and joined the 32 Democrats voting no on Wednesday.
According to No Labels, “the most consequential idea” agreed to by Pelosi involves an easier pathway forward for legislation sponsored by a two-thirds supermajority of members (290). Galston said that the new rule “establishes a mechanism that would move bills with that kind of broad support forward” and “pretty much guarantee that they would reach the floor.”
It would feasibly ease, Galston argued, gridlock that has killed bills with bipartisan support in the past. He used the example of the 2013 Gang of Eight immigration bill, which passed the Senate 68–32 (with 14 Republicans joining all Seante Democrats). The bill likely had strong majority support in the House, according to Galston — though the “very demanding” 290-vote threshold may not have been met.
But Republican leadership prevented the bill from being debated in the House. “Immigration would not now be the poisonous issue [it is] in our politics,” Galston said, “if that bill had come to the floor.”
A second provision similarly cuts a path to the floor for amendments co-sponsored by at least 20 Democrats and 20 Republicans. This “considerably raises the odds that amendments with broad bipartisan support will get consideration,” said Galston, and it encourages bipartisan cooperation.
Critics, however, say this new rule could also make it easier for outside interests to influence legislation. In Slate, Jim Newell posited that lobbyists could, for example, pressure “the 20 most corporate-friendly Democrats [to] join up with Republicans to, say, further weaken the Dodd-Frank financial regulatory law.”
Among the other reforms agreed to is a change to the “motion to vacate the chair,” which allows dissident members to easily initiate a process to remove the speaker. The new revision means more support will be required for such motions.
Galston described the motion to vacate as a “sword of Damocles,” hanging over speakers’ heads and pressuring them to bow to minority interests in their caucus. Most notably, John Boehner resigned under the threat of a motion to vacate. The Problem Solvers’ reform “doesn’t eliminate the sword, but it certainly moves it back from the Speaker’s neck.”
Now that Democrats have a foothold in the government, they must decide what kind of legislation to pursue: ambitious proposals likely to remain symbolic until Democrats can win back the Senate and presidency, or “problem-solving” compromise with a party and president many regard as anathema.
Though they’ve developed bipartisan solutions on a range of issues, the Problem Solvers have seen little legislative success. With at least some rules changes now likely on the way in January, the question is whether they can “turn ideas into action.”
Alexander Stern is editor of RealClearPolicy.