How to Fix the House of Representatives

Ever since 2007, when the independent socialist Bernie Sanders graduated from the U.S. House of Representatives to the U.S. Senate, the House has been made up of some combination of 435 Republicans and Democrats.

Two parties.

That’s it.

And, you may have noticed that even when an independent or third party member is elected to Congress (remember the Connecticut for Lieberman Party?), they have to caucus with one of the two major parties.

So, for example, independent Sen. Angus King of Maine caucuses with the Democrats. Bernie Sanders caucuses with the Democrats. Joe Lieberman caucused with the Democrats. This enables them to occupy a seat on committees. If you don’t belong to a party, you have no seat on a committee. In fact, if the leader of the party doesn’t like how you vote, you can lose your seats on committees.

It’s simply not possible to function as a true independent in either the House or Senate and be an effective representative. It’s hard enough for outsider candidates to get elected in the first place, but you have to give up most of your independence once you get to Congress even if you are elected as a member of the Green Party or the Wingnuts for Satan Party, or whatever. This is one of the main reasons why people who insist on talking about the importance of third parties are politically naive. There are a handful of states with meaningful third parties, but they won’t work on the federal level. I have some theories about how to use the unorthodox ballot access rules in a few states to create a progressive rump party in Congress, but I’ll save those ideas for another day.

The important thing is that our Congress is a de facto two-party institution. That’s not what the Founders had in mind when they wrote the Constitution, but it’s still the result mainly of the rules they laid down.

Now, while there has traditionally been some overlap in ideology between the parties (conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans), there are certain things that the majority party needs to do on its own without any help from the party in the minority. The most important responsibility of Congress is to raise the money we need to operate the government and to then figure out how to spend that money. This is called the appropriations process. One of the advantages of controlling the appropriations process is that you get to add money to study colon cancer or to protect a wildlife area or to rebuild a crumbling bridge in your district.

Broadly speaking, Democrats and Republicans have much different priorities about where and how they’d like to spend federal money. I’m not talking about fights about the size of government. Obviously, the Republicans generally want to spend less money on fewer things. But they still want to spend trillions of dollars. Since they control both houses of Congress, it’s their job to decide how much money to give to the Departments of Justice and Education and Commerce and Energy and so on. The Democrats on the appropriations committees mostly just sit there like wallflowers and vote against everything the Republicans want to do. There’s a little bit of backscratching that goes on where the Dems will give their votes on something to get a crumb for something they care about, but it basically sucks to be a minority appropriator. What you mainly do is watch the other side gut your cherished program to fund something you consider idiotic.

In recent years, it’s even gotten depressing to a be a majority appropriator. This is because, first of all, the Tea Party folks hate Republican appropriation bills and are always demanding that they include superfluous stuff like bans of funding for Planned Parenthood or the Affordable Care Act. If you are a Republican who sits on the Appropriations Committee, you can be almost assured of a primary challenge from the right, and this is true even if you go through the motions of trying to satisfy the Tea Partiers despite knowing that the president will veto your efforts.

The second reason it’s depressing to be a Republican appropriator is that Congress doesn’t pass stand-alone appropriations bills anymore. There used to be about 13 separate bills that were used to fund the whole government. One would be for the Defense Department, and that one still gets the normal treatment. The rest, though, the bills for funding everything from the IRS to the SEC to our national parks to Veteran’s Affairs, get wrapped up into one giant bill called an “omnibus.” What they typically do is just agree to keep funding at the same levels that they were last year, so most of the work the appropriators do is wasted and goes for virtually nothing.

There’s a third reason that it’s no longer desirable for a Republican to actually have some say-so in how our federal tax dollars are spent, and that’s because the party got obsessed with so-called “earmarks” and banned them. This means that you can no longer set aside some money for your local community college or to fix that crumbling bridge in your district. You also have nothing to trade to a lawmaker of the other party whose vote you need. In the past, maybe you could fix his bridge and he’d fund your vocational program. Those days are long gone.

Still, despite all the dysfunction, the government does get funded. But here’s the crazy part.

The Democrats have to vote to spend the money. They don’t get to decide how the money will be spent because they aren’t in the majority on the appropriations committees. They actually vociferously disagree with how the money is being spent. But the Republicans will not vote for their own appropriations bills. They won’t vote for the omnibus bill, either. Whenever John Boehner has tried to pass his own spending bills using just Republican votes, he’s failed. He goes to Nancy Pelosi and asks her to get some of her members to vote to keep the government open.

There are a couple of reasons why Pelosi has been willing to do this despite her party not having a say in how the money is allocated and despite them not agreeing with how the money is allocated. The most important is that we have a Democratic president and he gets blamed if Congress can’t keep the government open and the country and its economy goes in the crapper. This is even a bigger consideration when it comes to raising the debt ceiling to authorize the payment of the bills Congress has incurred. It’s not popular to raise the debt ceiling and it’s really the responsibility of the party in the majority to do it, but the Democrats have provided most of the votes simply to prevent chaos and global recession from taking down their president.

The other reason the Democrats have gone along with this unusual arrangement where they vote for the Republicans’ appropriations is that the Democrats believe in government and would rather see it limp along in a crippled state than watch it drowned in a bathtub.

But here’s the thing.

The Democrats have really taken on the role of enablers here, in the same classic way in which people inadvertently help alcoholics and drug addicts continue to use their substance of choice by smoothing over the full consequences of their actions. When John Boehner can’t keep the government open or pay our bills and protect our nation’s credit rating, he should crash and burn. His party should crash and burn. Instead, it’s like Pelosi hires him a high-priced lawyer to quash that conviction for drunken driving. Boehner lives for another day, but his party still can’t govern on its own.

In reality, whatever coalition of elected representatives ultimately votes for the appropriations bills is the coalition that controls Congress. They are the functional majority that produces the most important thing that Congress is responsible for doing. And if that functional majority is made up of mostly Democrats, then the Democrats ought to be making the decisions about not just whether that money is spent but how it is spent.

The Democrats have not insisted on this, but here’s how it would look in practice.

The Speaker would figure out how to find 218 members who will vote to fund the government. Then those 218 members would get together and elect leaders to serve on the appropriations committees. Most of the those leaders would be Democrats because most of the 218 members willing to spend money to keep the government open would be Democrats.

Now, if John Boehner threatened to actually do this and his threat had any credibility, a lot of Republicans would stop dicking around and get on board with being responsible adults. If the Republicans who don’t want to be led by Democrats got reasonable, it would turn out that Boehner only needs 30 or 40 Democrats to keep the government operating. They’d have to give the Democrats a few slots, but not the majority of them.

This isn’t any different from how a true parliamentary system works, where in order to get a majority the biggest party often has to give some ministerial posts to some smaller allied parties.

Yet, since Boehner isn’t willing to make his arrangement with Pelosi formal and admit that he needs her help to govern, he’s decided to step down. Kevin McCarthy discovered that he’d have to formalize this arrangement with Pelosi, too, or promise the Freedom Caucus of his own party that he’d shut down the government and default on our debts. Since he’s not willing to shut down the government and default on our debts, he decided to pass the gavel to someone else. Paul Ryan doesn’t want to be Speaker for a hundred reasons, but one of them is that he doesn’t want to shut down the government and default on our debts.

But no Republican can pass the appropriations bills and raise the debt ceiling without asking Pelosi for help. And, at this point since Boehner announced his resignation, no Republican can get elected Speaker without doing one of two things. Either they have to promise to not pass the appropriations bills and raise the debt ceiling, or they have to ask for Pelosi’s help in getting the votes they need to win the gavel.

I know this can seem dull to go over this so repetitively, but it’s essential to understanding the point we’ve reached in Congress.

It’s true that the people elected vastly more Republicans than Democrats to serve in the House of Representatives, but the Republicans are not the majority where it counts. The majority that counts is the majority that provides the votes to fund the government and pay our bills. Period.

The Democrats have enabled the Republicans to badmouth Washington DC and Congress and pretend that they can do things like default on our debts and keep the government shut down. This has only led the Republicans to grow a bigger and bigger tolerance for resisting basic reality. Finally, something snapped and broke. Basically, the GOP overdosed on their own bullshit and now they have no idea how to dig out of the hole they spent so much time digging.

So, really, the GOP has no choice but to extend a hand and ask for help. And the Democrats have no reason to reach out their hands in return, especially until they’re damn sure that the Republicans realize that they hit rock bottom and need to change basically everything about their lives.

If there needs to be a coalition that will keep the government open and pay our bills, and there definitely needs to be one of those, then that coalition should elect the next Speaker. That Speaker can be a Republican. Given the makeup of Congress, that Speaker ought to be a Republican. But that Republican needs to bring some Democrats into their leadership team and put some Democrats in charge of some committees, particularly appropriations committees.

This is the only way Congress can actually function.

The alternative is to default on our debts and probably cause a global recession or even a global depression.

The only other possibility is that everyone from the president to the congressional Democrats to the moderate Republican establishment agrees to completely capitulate to the most radical rump of the Republican Party and give them everything they want.

Since no one wants to do that, it would seem that a coalition government in the House is the only way to go.

Now, this won’t happen just because it makes sense.

If it happens at all, it will happen because the Republicans realize that they cannot elect a Speaker on their own who hasn’t promised to deliver a global catastrophe as early as December when our bills come due and we have to raise the debt ceiling.

Chances are, many of them already realize this. I know Boehner, McCarthy and Ryan realize it.

But the rank-and-file may have to stare into the abyss from the very precipice before they can come to grips with how far their disease has advanced.

To summarize, the only majority that matters in Congress is the majority that funds the government and pays the bills. If the Republicans cannot supply one on their own, they cannot be the majority on their own. The Democrats led them to believe otherwise. But the truth has won out.

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