We don’t know which party will win the majority in tomorrow’s midterms, and so we don’t know who will take the Speaker’s gavel from the retiring Paul Ryan. But, here’s one thing we are sure of: The next elected Speaker will kick off his or her tenure with a speech promising big changes in how the House operates in the 116th Congress.

The speech will decry the broken ways of Congress and criticize the top-down, leadership-controlled policymaking process of recent years. It will then assure rank-and-file members that, this time, the process will open itself to them. It will promise honest and transparent debate, more accountability for leadership’s actions and a real voice for the minority. Because of these process changes, the speech will say, Congress will once again be a deliberative policymaking body worthy of voters’ confidence and trust.

The speech will not age well. All the promises’ll be broken — as Bruce Springsteen sang, but not in a liberating, Springsteen sort of way.

How do we know this? Recent history teaches the lesson rather starkly. If you lay the introductory speeches of the last three Speakers of the House side by side, it is nearly impossible to tell them apart. Their themes are the same, their platitudes nearly identical.

Each new Speaker has promised to air out the process by turning away from closed rules that shut down debate and force members of the House straight into votes on bills, often with little knowledge of what is in them. In 2007, Pelosi called on members to “join together in the first 100 hours to make this Congress the most honest and open Congress in history.” By the time he became Speaker in 2011, John Boehner was lamenting Pelosi’s failure on this score:

Perhaps he meant it, but just 18 percent of all special rules in his first Congress were granted open rules. In his second, it was down to just 8 percent.

As he became Speaker in 2015, Paul Ryan responded to that trend with a vow to “Open up the process. Let people participate.” Again the promise and the results were miles apart. Ryan will finish his first full Congress as speaker with a return to zero open rules. Across the three speakers, closed rules increased from 36 percent under Pelosi to a record high 55 percent under Ryan in the 115th Congress.

Where do all these bills that get rushed to votes originate? Each of the new Speakers promised that they would work the House’s system of regular order, allowing committees of jurisdiction to hold hearings and markups in order to produce carefully considered bills. The reality has been quite different, especially when Congress has managed to move consequential legislation. The recent Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, for example, was hastily assembled by the Speaker’s office from some spare White House bullet points, and received exactly zero committee hearings. The bill went from being introduced to being signed into law in just seven weeks. It is nothing new for backbenchers in the House to feel frozen out of the real action, but at this point even committee chairmen risk becoming afterthoughts. When they are consequential, it is because they build a close relationship with the leadership, rather than by virtue of their institutional role. Regular order has become something of a running joke.

In short, in spite of their paeans to a deliberative, open Congress, these three Speakers presided over an extreme centralization of power within the majority party leadership.

The divergence of rhetoric and action has a fairly simple, if unflattering, explanation. Members do genuinely yearn for the chance to take meaningful action. But, even more, they want to be sheltered from difficult votes, and they have accepted that party unity in service of victory in the next election comes first. As a result, Speakers offer some comforting cheap talk about rules reform, but they plan to exercise tight control of the chamber and ultimately win the appreciation of most of their members. They expect some insults from a small group of members (whose divergent policy priorities lead them to pursue process reform), but figure that such complaints will ultimately be inconsequential next to the accomplishment of holding the coalition together.

So then, what would an honest Speaker say? That the majority party’s members will have to decide what they value most: maximizing their chance of retaining the majority, or restoring Congress as a genuinely deliberative body. They can’t have both.

Under the majority-first option, the Speaker will structure processes to maintain the appearance of party unity, always keeping an eye on the next election. Rank-and-file members will trade real participation for protection. The Speaker will restrict open deliberation to conceal internal party divisions. Important legislation will be carefully crafted by party leaders to maximize partisan advantage, and it will be considered under closed rules. The minority’s goal will be to gum up the works in an effort to paint the majority as inept to help them make their case to voters that they should be in the majority next Congress.

The second, harder path will attempt to actually deliver on the process-praising speeches, thereby restoring confidence in Congress as an institution where the day’s issues are given serious, searching engagement. The Speaker will open the process, allow public floor debate and amendment activity, permit increased rank-and-file and minority participation, and even take the risk of letting majority-led bills fail on the floor. In return, members will have to live with exposed divisions within their ranks and toxic votes designed to split their base. In that more fluid political environment, more members will lose their seats — which many members seem to regard as unthinkable.

The first option is obviously likely to win out. But it would be refreshing if the next Speaker could simply admit that the centralized processes of today’s environment are just the logical outgrowth of members’ monomaniacal focus on being in the majority. If members truly want the process changes many say they do, they must be willing to lose — votes, issues, even seats — more often. Their losses would be Congress’s gain.

Image from Albert H Teich

Featured Publications