Which citizens voted to give Nancy Pelosi the power to shut down our government? None. And yet there she is, able to close down numerous government services, with just the power of her intransigence.
We need to look at a simplified legislative example to understand the problem and the solution. To properly grasp this situation, it’s important to understand that essentially all legislation originates from specialized legislative committees.
Let’s say that Republicans introduce a bill (H.R. 54321) in the U.S. House of Representatives. Let’s also say that Democrat Representative Jones decides that supporting 54321 would be in the best interest of his constituents and the country as a whole.
The fly in the ointment here is that in this case the House Democrat Leader has decided that Democrats should oppose 54321. Now Representative Jones is in a bind.
If he chooses to vote for 54321, the House Democrat Leader could ensure that he suffers severe political penalties. (If Speaker Pelosi has enough votes anyway and Mr. Jones will be in a tough reelection fight next year, she may cut him some slack and let him “vote his conscience” – and her long-term political best interests.)
What potential penalties could Rep Jones suffer if he goes against the wishes of the Speaker? He could be stripped of any committee leadership positions he has, or lose his seniority on a committee. He could be bumped from a committee membership that he values. Any bills he introduces could go nowhere.
So his choice is: a) do what is in the best interest of his constituents and the country regarding 54321; or b) do what is in his own best political interests (and that of Ms. Pelosi). Unfortunately, the current system we have assures that “b” will almost always be the choice made.
In a nutshell, this is why there is gridlock – because legislators often vote in lockstep as a political party block, rather than what is in the best interest of their constituents and country!
The concern here is that not a single citizen voted for anyone to be the House Democrat Leader (or Republican Leader, as all of this applies to both parties, and in the Senate). As such, why does this nationally un-elected person have the power to control the destiny of our entire country?
The easy solution to fix this undemocratic and unreasonable situation is to remove some of the power these nationally unelected political party leaders have. Here are two simple examples that would have a profoundly beneficial impact:
1) remove their power to appoint legislators to committees, and
2) remove their power to appoint chairpersons to committees.
Once those unwarranted powers were removed, these party leaders would have a much smaller cudgel to browbeat their party members into lockstep submission. Instead, legislators would be much more inclined to vote for what was best for their constituents and the country. Democrat Representative Jones could support Republican bill 54321 without fear of major political reprisals from his party leadership.
Isn’t that more like the way the legislature should work in a truly democratic republic?
The details of how committees would be assigned could be worked out to be fair and non-political. For example, the majority party would still have the majority of members on committees. Let’s say that there are nine Democrat committee positions on a certain House committee. Any Democrat representatives who are interested would submit their names – and the nine members would be determined by a lottery (NOT the whims of the House Democrat Leader).
To keep everyone from submitting his or her name to every committee, each representative would be limited to volunteering for a set number of committees (perhaps six). To award longer term members for their extended service, any representatives with more than two terms could have their names entered twice in the lottery for each committees they were interested in.
Once House or Senate committee members are chosen, it will be up to the majority committee members (NOT the party Leader) to elect a chairperson from their party group.
By the way, there would still be a House (and Senate) party Leader. Their jobs would be to be: a) a spokesperson regarding their party’s official position on various matters; b) an educator of their caucus members as to the pros and cons of any legislative matter; and c) a negotiator with the Executive Branch.
In addition to extracting their committee power, item “b” is a key difference, for it changes party leaders from being dictators to being educators. That would be a major improvement over the current system – and would unquestionably lead to less political gridlock.
That, in turn, would be an extraordinary improvement, helping to ensure that legislators act more responsibly — as well as in the interest of their constituents and the country.
After this major problem is resolved, some of the other powers of theses party leaders should also be examined and possibly changed: such as the power to keep bills from being voted on.
One final point is worth noting.
None of this was as important in the not-so-distant past – 75, 50 perhaps even 25 years ago. Back then, legislators and legislative sessions were not full-time, 365-days-a-year affairs. Legislators actually had real jobs during much of the year. They did not believe they weren’t doing their job if they weren’t enacting more laws – which didn’t as often mean writing broad, often ambiguous legislation, and then turning that legislation over to regulatory agency bureaucrats to interpret, implement and enforce.
They did not seek to control more and more aspects of our lives – culminating in legislation that would put federal bureaucrats in charge of our energy, economy, buildings, jobs and living standards.
And not very many years ago, our political parties were not controlled – or at least constantly pressured into submission and obedience – by noisy members of Congress and tax-exempt activist groups that are determined to radically, fundamentally and completely transform the United States into a country governed not by We the People but by a small cadre of legislators, regulators and judges.
But that is what we face today. That is why reforms like these are essential.
John Droz, Jr. is a physicist and director of the Alliance for Wise Energy Decisions (AWED), which promotes energy policies and programs that are technically, economically and environmentally sound.