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The House Freedom Caucus has some good ideas on how the US House should operate

Voting buttons in the US House of Representatives chamber.
Voting buttons in the US House of Representatives chamber.
Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

At a recent forum, House Freedom Caucus founding member Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI) told reporters that they had it all wrong: "The false, lazy narrative is that we want a more conservative speaker." Instead, he explained, "What we want is a process-focused speaker. ... What we need is a speaker who follows the House rules."

Yes, HFC has made mostly ridiculous policy demands. But some of their process demands are actually quite sensible, and not all that ridiculous. And if enacted, they might actually make the House a less contentious and less polarized place, and would probably produce more moderate policy, quite contrary to the HFC's expectations.

These demands haven't received all that much attention so far. But they are worthy of attention. So we shall pay them some attention here.

Fair warning: This post gets into some wonky details. But they are important details. And hopefully, you'll come away with some new perspectives on the House GOP leadership crisis.

What kind of process does the House Freedom Caucus want?

The basic argument, as laid out by Amash and HFC-aligned Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) in separate op-eds, appears to be that John Boehner sold out true conservatism by running the House like a corrupt dictator who, along with his fellow cronies, "perpetuate the pay-to-play culture that permeates Capitol Hill" (Amash).

Instead of observing that cherished principle of "regular order," in which committees and subcommittees deliberate and members have time to read bills and add amendments on the floor, Boehner often bypassed committees, brought must-pass legislation to the floor at the last minute, and very rarely allowed rank-and-file members to offer amendments.

Amash, Lee, and others are obviously frustrated. They appear to believe that Republican control of Congress owes much to their hard-charging conservative principles, and yet leadership keeps selling them short. They are convinced that were the House to operate in a more bottom-up way, with rank-and-file members having more say, the self-evident wisdom of their principles would triumph on its merits.

There is also some confusion and contradiction in their demands. In opposition to a truly open, bottom-up process, they still want a Republican leader to continue to enforce the "Hastert Rule," the informal agreement in which party leaders only allow votes on legislation supported by a majority of Republicans. They also want a speaker who will punish Republicans who sign "discharge petitions," which are a way for a majority of House members to force a floor vote on a bill that leadership has for some reason refused to bring to the floor (like what's happening now with the Export-Import bank).  Weirdly, Mike Lee seems to view centralization of power mainly through the idea of the "Sanders-Clinton-Pelosi-Reid Democrats," noting, "Washington's toxic status quo — however despised by the American people — is nothing less than the crowning achievement of generations of progressives." Never mind that the biggest mover toward House leadership centralization was none other than Newt Gingrich.

In short, there's some confusion in the demands. And the fine print of all this nice stuff about a bottom-up, open procedure is that it should mostly really only apply to Republicans, who somehow are also the natural party of bottom-up openness.

But still, the general principle toward decentralization is in the right place. And it's worth paying attention to, because it may turn out to be the only way to govern the House in the long run.

How we got here

Understanding the current crisis in House leadership makes more sense if we view it as the culmination of a 40-year process of ever-strengthening House leadership.

Back in the mid-1960s, the growing consensus was that committees had too much power while leadership had too little. This feeling was especially strong among liberal Democrats, who saw conservative Southern Democrats from safe seats bottling up civil rights bills. Because committees were run by a seniority system, party leaders had few powers to discipline senior committee chairs.

As liberals came to comprise a larger share of the majority Democratic caucus in the 1970s (particularly after the 1974 election), Democrats changed the rules to give the caucus and then the leadership more control over committee assignments and floor procedures, in order to bypass unrepresentative committee chairs.

Over the decades, leaders of both parties have also used increasingly restrictive floor procedures, limiting opportunities for rank-and-file members to participate and further marginalizing committees. Much of this was accelerated when Newt Gingrich came to power in 1995. He drastically slashed budgets for the committees, concentrated much more power in the leadership, and took a much more active role in appointing committee chairs. Boehner simply carried on this tradition. He has controlled the floor process and committee assignments closely as speaker.

Two graphs nicely elaborate this trend.

The first comes from data put together by Donald R. Wolfensberger and the percentage of House bills that have come to the floor under "restrictive" rules going back to 1975. "Restrictive" rules mean that bills cannot really be amended on the floor, which cuts out rank-and-file members.

It's a clear trend toward more leadership control, from 85 percent of bills going to the floor with "open rules" in the 94th Congress (1975-'76) to just 8 percent in the 113th Congress (2013-'14). When Gingrich took over as speaker in the 104th Congress (1995-'96), there was a slight uptick in the percentage of open rules (up to 58 percent from 44 percent on the previous Congress), but Gingrich quickly learned to choose control over openness.

Graphic by Lee Drutman, source: Donald R. Wolfensberger

Graphic by Lee Drutman. Source: Donald R. Wolfensberger.

The second comes from a forthcoming paper in Legislative Studies Quarterly by William Bendix, which describes the increasing pattern of party leaders bypassing committee markups entirely. Bendix covers from the 101st Congress (1989-'90), when 24 percent of House bills bypassed committees, to the 111th Congress (2009-'10), when 42 percent of House bills bypassed committees.

Graphic by Lee Drutman, Source: William Bendix, "Bypassing Congressional Committees"

Graphic by Lee Drutman. Source: William Bendix, "Bypassing Congressional Committees."

Most of the shift took place during the decade of Republican rule from 1995 to 2005. Though the data only goes through 2011, Bendix tells me that Boehner did more bypassing of committee than Pelosi.

If you've made it this far into the article, you probably read enough on this topic that you've almost certainly already seen some version of the graph below, which describes growing polarization between the two parties. Observe that polarization increases at the same time that rules become more restrictive and as committees recede in importance. Note also that the last time parties were this polarized (1890 to 1920) was the last period of equally strong party leadership.

Political scientists would explain these correlations as a part of a rational, self-reinforcing process. As parties became more homogeneous, members were willing to delegate more power to leadership to enforce party discipline. As leadership because stronger, it was better able to discipline outlier party members, further enforcing homogeneity. This idea is sometimes called the "procedural cartel theory," as developed by Gary Cox and Matthew McCubbins, or "conditional party government," a term coined by David Rohde.

The Chinese finger trap of centralizing power

House leadership can discipline factions for some period of time by centralizing control, especially if members feel they owe their electoral success to the party brand. But as that has become less the case, party leaders have been left with fewer bargaining chips. Moreover, the more centralized leadership has become, the less valuable committee and subcommittee positions become, and thus, the less leadership has to offer to bring in a dissenting faction.

As political scientists Jeffrey Jenkins and Charles Stewart wrote in an excellent Monkey Cage analysis of the House speakership crisis:

Since Newt Gingrich (Ga.) became speaker in 1995, the Republican Party has centralized power. Committees are less important, and so getting handed a plum committee position is less valuable. So, why compromise if there's no prize for doing so?

Stated differently, the traditional way of dealing with internal party factions was to divvy up institutional positions of power among the various factions. Before Newt, committees and entrepreneurial House members could pursue policy in their domains under a broad party umbrella. No more. Now uniformity is expected and reinforced. Which is precisely why groups like the HFC are forming.

Moreover, as the speakership becomes the only position with any real authority, it becomes more valuable. Thus, dissenting factions will work harder to obtain control over it. Arguably, if the speaker didn't have much power to control committees and floor votes (i.e., if power were more devolved), the House Freedom Caucus wouldn't be fighting so hard to control the speakership.

Oh, the irony. Like a Chinese finger trap: The harder you pull, the more you're stuck. Or a good Greek tragedy, with the will to power becoming the very undoing of power.

The underlying obstacle is that we're a big and diverse country of 319 million people. Both parties are inevitably big coalitions of many factions, and the bigger the majority, the more factions have to be included. The US is the only large-scale industrial democracy with just two parties, which means that two parties have to contain a lot of ideological diversity. One can only force party discipline for so long before some factions get angry enough to revolt. At some point, this ideological diversity has to spill over.  Which is exactly what appears to be happening.

Why decentralization makes sense

Putting policymaking back in committees is hardly a radical suggestion. It's pretty much what the establishment Bipartisan Policy Center's Commission on Political Reform recommended in a report last year. The BPC noted that "routine circumvention of the formal committee process" was contributing to the "dysfunction" in Washington: "Committee chairs and members feel disenfranchised by the fact that many important pieces of legislation are crafted on the cusp of
 a deadline by congressional leaders without the benefit
 of a committee process."

The report went on to note: "The weakening of the committee system in Congress has had a very deleterious effect: it has deprived Congress of the opportunity to build stronger networks of expertise and experience, limited opportunities for collaboration and team-building, and contributed to a sense of disenfranchisement among many rank-and-file members."

In his forthcoming paper on congressional leaders bypassing committees (see above), Bendix leverages variation in committees to explain why some committees get bypassed more often than others.

One reason is that some committees are too moderate. As he writes: "I find evidence that the most moderate panels are regularly excluded from legislative deliberations. ... Because they may produce bills that move policy away from the majority's median, they are likely to lose their bill-drafting responsibilities."

The other reason is that some committees are too polarized to have any productive deliberations, and letting these committees handle bills just produces partisan spectacle. What this suggests is that if more bills were to go through committees, we might get more moderate policy in some places, and perhaps even more contentious policy in other places. Then again, who knows — if committees were given more responsibility and staff and space to deliberate, they might reach some unexpected agreements.

Giving committees more power would make things a little more unpredictable, no doubt, as would opening up the floor process. But chaos and unpredictability also create opportunities, and potentially new and different coalitions.

As Frank Baumgartner and Bryan Jones argue in their new and excellent book, The Politics of Information, "The range of perspectives that comes with fluid rules of participation is associated with better decisions and the consideration of a wider range of information." The book, which I reviewed in the Washington Monthly, makes a convincing argument for why greater diversity of perspective and information is a necessary component of a dynamic politics capable of solving complex problems. By this logic, the more centrally controlled leadership in the House has become, the worse congressional policymaking has become.

There's another reason to think this decentralization might lead to more moderate policy. Recent work by political scientists Sarah F. Anzia and Molly C. Jackman has demonstrated that in state legislatures where the majority party exerts less control over both floor procedures and committee assignments, the majority gets "rolled" more often. That is, more bills pass with bipartisan support.

What the HFC thinks would happen — and why it's wrong

As best I can tell, the operating premise of the House Freedom Caucus seems to be that were it not for that sellout Boehner and his Chamber of Commerce–funded cronies atop the Republican Party, the power of true conservative principles and ideas would be so compelling that the House would of course support their policies. Or as Daniel Webster (R-FL) has written (in prose that resembles 19th-century German political philosophy):

Power focuses on self-preservation; principle focuses on making ideas successful. Power tends to protect itself merely to maintain its own status and control. Principle gives up power for the sake of the highest good and to create the best public policy.

One of the most significant contrasts between power and principle is how it treats policy. Power tends to view an idea based on the position, loyalty, rank, or seniority of the sponsor. Principle focuses solely on the merits of the idea itself.

I happen to think it's unlikely that HFC would win much on the merits, especially given fewer than 60 Republican votes in the Senate and a Democrat in the White House. Among their demands are that they want a filibuster-proof way of repealing Obamacare, and to tie major reductions in entitlement spending to increasing the debt ceiling, and to force the defunding of Planned Parenthood, and to impeach the IRS commissioner, and some other stuff. I'm pretty sure these ideas are far out of the mainstream, and would have trouble getting out of committee or passing a majority on the House floor.

But I'd be willing see these ideas and proposals debated and voted on. My prediction is you'd see more moderate Republicans joining with most Democrats in opposition, just as you've seen moderate Republicans joining with most Democrats to keep the government funded and the country from defaulting on its debt.

I'm also pretty sure the result of all this devolution of power would be to turn the House into a more moderate, majoritarian institution, and one that functions better because more members have a stake in the outcome. But I could be wrong, because, as Webster put it, "Principle focuses solely on the merits of the idea itself." Whatever that means.

What's likely to happen now

"Whether the GOP embraces uncertainty or not, it is coming," writes Sen. Mike Lee, in prose that reads nothing like the dense Germanic political philosophy of Webster. "It's not chaos or crisis. It's just disruption. You know, that cool, buzzy phenomenon Republican elites have championed in every other industry (that is, when it was at some one else's throat)? Well, now it's coming to drink their milkshakes, too." (Mmm ... Republican establishment milkshake. So rich.)

Whoever becomes speaker will have to deal with these demands. Most likely, he or she will not want to devolve power to committees and rank-and-file members, since that would undermine the speaker's power, and then what good is being speaker? But if the new speaker doesn't do this, he or she will face the exact same problem as Boehner. It's an unsustainable situation.

By contrast, devolving power would actually make power more sustainable in the long run. The speakership would be worth less, yes, but it would be easier for a speaker to cut deals because a speaker would have more independent assignments that were worth something because they each came with some meaningful power. Moreover, more members would have a meaningful stake in the political process, and so might actually wind up taking governing more seriously, given real responsibility. Of course, this would require some serious staffing up of committees, which I've argued for elsewhere.

But I think Amash is onto something when he writes: "Under regular order, bipartisanship and compromise flourish. With control over the legislative agenda devolved to committees, subcommittees, and individual representatives, more liberal outcomes are possible, but so, too, are more conservative or libertarian outcomes."

The House would become a more chaotic and unpredictable place. But it would also become a more creative and innovative place. Less-centralized power would free up space for new coalitions. And it's probably exactly what we need to break the current logjam in the House.

I don't think it will happen this session, but at some point, a speaker will have to realize that the only way to govern the House is through decentralized leadership. So I hope the House Freedom Caucus continues to force this conversation. Because it's one we ought to be having.