clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

How Congress stumbled on the worst combination of representative government

The US House is acting like a parliament. That’s not great for America — or for you.

Kevin McCarthy looks down and covers his face at a news conference.
Kevin McCarthy, who’s not having a great time.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The vote to oust Speaker Kevin McCarthy last week was another clear indicator that the House of Representatives is becoming something un-American. It’s not that the vote inherently undermined national security, nor did it somehow betray the fundamental values that have underpinned the US political system for nearly 250 years. Instead, it was a stranger turn. The vote was downright parliamentary.

It was a de facto no-confidence vote offered by eight dissident Republicans and backed by House Democrats as a bloc. It is not unusual in a parliamentary system for a gang of rebels joining with the opposition to bring down the party leader, but in American politics, it is a foreign concept.

It’s not that there is anything inherently wrong with a parliamentary system of government. After all, some of America’s best friends have it.

But here in the United States, our institutions aren’t designed for this. The Constitution created a system of checks and balances. For centuries, Congress has functioned as a bicameral legislature composed of members of two ideologically diverse parties, where local parochial interests were often of far greater concern than national interest groups.

Further, for generations in Washington, lawmakers guarded their own power, and their chamber’s, against others. That ethos was embodied in the apocryphal quote from a House member, who explained: The other party was simply the opposition, but the Senate was the enemy.

In practice, this led to a politics where political coalitions would come and go depending on individual issues, presidents would openly clash with congressional leaders of their own parties, and the result of congressional votes wasn’t always preordained before the gavel rang down.

That certainly doesn’t ring true anymore.

Instead, American politics has transformed into a political structure where major legislation can at times be pushed through when the same party controls both chambers of Congress and is typically dictated top down. Party leaders call the shots, and backbench members fall in lockstep behind them. The problem is that the American system of governance is not designed for this, and in recent years, when one party does not have unified control of government, the result is gridlock.

The result is a politics where there is increasing pressure for things to take place speedily along strict party lines in a system designed for slow compromise. These contradictions become increasingly apparent at moments like the present, when control of government is divided and House majorities are narrow, leading to breakdowns like what happened last week.

Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-PA) told Vox that while “we don’t have a parliamentary system, we now have two parties that act like those in parliamentary democracy.” He noted how much parties had shifted over the past century — whereas once they were “ideologically heterodox, which made it much easier to have cross-party voters ... you now have almost 100 percent ideological purity on both sides.”

This was echoed by Joshua Huder, a senior fellow at the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University, who noted that “the parties have gotten so polarized from one another, we are about as close as we can get to a parliamentary system. He went on to argue that “the House isn’t broken. There’s nothing wrong with it as an institution. The House is a majority body that has traditionally allowed the majority to do whatever they want to do ... it’s a party problem.”

Former Republican Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia told Vox that Congress “is continuing to act more like a parliamentary institution than a balance of power structure, with Democrats not acting as minority shareholders but as the opposition.”

He noted that Democrats made the decision to oust McCarthy despite the likelihood of worse policy outcomes in the short term on issues like Ukraine and government funding. Instead, Davis argued that Democrats “made the calculated decision to remove the top Republican fundraiser in McCarthy.” He understood why, though. After all, “the job of the minority is to become a majority.”

Huder argued there were limits to just how much Congress could resemble legislatures in foreign countries. “One of the problems we have in the American system is that we don’t have elections based on parties at all, so we can never have that kind of parliamentary-style accountability.” As he pointed out, “what happened [last] Tuesday was not a no-confidence vote in the way that you would see in a parliamentary election. It didn’t start an election. There is no new governing coalition, and we are sort of stuck. And, in some ways, nothing has changed in the House.”

What’s driving the House’s changing power structure?

The breakdown of parties was already demonstrated earlier this year when 20 Republican rebels forced McCarthy to go through 15 ballots to be elected speaker — even though he had been overwhelmingly ratified as the choice of the GOP conference in a vote two months earlier. Although there had been a trend in recent years where members declined to back their party’s choice for speaker in the formal floor vote, it had not made a difference until January.

As Davis noted, members increasingly come from safe congressional districts where the November general election “is nothing more than a constitutional formality” and are elected by voters who get their news from partisan echo chambers.

Yet the institutions have shifted with the parties. Congressional leaders have become increasingly important and have centralized power, leaving committee chairs and rank-and-file members with far less sway, just as in a parliamentary system where power is concentrated in the hands of the party leader.

Davis noted that the increasingly parliamentary nature of the House created a self-reinforcing feedback loop. “Leaders have become more powerful, as it is the only way the place can operate,” he said. He noted that if the minority party considers themselves the opposition rather than minority shareholders, then “bills have to be written in the speaker’s office, because the other party is going to put in poison pills” as amendments in the open process that once governed the House in the days before it became not just a majoritarian institution but a top-down one.

What does a more parliamentary House mean for the rest of us?

The result is that Congress has stopped functioning the way it’s nominally supposed to via political science textbooks and Schoolhouse Rock cartoons. The idea of a budget being passed to lay out the framework of 12 different appropriations bills, which then go on to pass both chambers, with any differences being negotiated via conference committee, is as archaic as the spittoons that still sit on the floor of the Senate.

This means that basic government tasks are increasingly pushed off, with Capitol Hill seeing repeated last minute showdowns over funding the government and avoiding a default on the national debt. It also means that bipartisan legislation can face real obstacles, with Republicans relying on what they call the “Hastert Rule,” which requires a majority of the majority party GOP conference to approve any legislation that reaches the floor. This has become an obstacle to Ukraine funding in recent weeks: Skeptics within the GOP have argued that aid to that country no longer has support of the House Republicans, although it still has strong support both in the Senate and nationally.

Instead, the parliamentary nature of the congressional parties, particularly in the House, has simply created greater dysfunction, as, increasingly, major legislation is done in a handful of gargantuan bills. The result is a muddled mess where the type of bipartisan coalitions that once moved major legislation are politically impossible in a polarized environment in which leaders have to build majorities solely from within their caucuses and face political doom when one intraparty faction proves intransigent.

The question is quite how one-sided all of these new norms are. Democrats have been relatively more tractable in recent years than Republicans — although part of that may simply be because Nancy Pelosi eliminated the procedure from the rules of the House when she was speaker. Boyle argued that “being Republican leader means you have a short shelf life. At least on the Republican side, motion to vacate is now a permanent part in which norms have changed in this generation and this is now the new normal. In contrast, he argued on “the Democratic side, it’s very difficult to imagine a situation where anyone would ever utilize” it.

However, it created a precedent, and there’s no guarantee what House rules might look in the future or how tractable congressional Democrats might be. Speaking Tuesday after the vote to remove McCarthy, Tom Cole (R-OK) wondered what would happen in the future: “Anytime you do something that is unprecedented, you have to worry that it becomes easier in the future. That’s probably something that some of my Democratic friends are pondering right now.”

But that’s not a problem for Hakeem Jeffries now. After all, he’s still just the leader of the opposition.