How Thorough Will Boehner's Reform of Congress Be?

Boehner’s style seems to be much more a search for consensus rather than the autocracy it just replaced.


Coming into the majority on the heels of its successful “Pledge to America,” the new House Republican leadership is likely to consider making some major reforms to the way the chamber does its business. Incoming Speaker John Boehner has already indicated this is very much on his mind, though how deeply he wants those reforms to go has yet to be spelled out. 

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There are some, however, who are arguing for an even more open process than Boehner may be willing to accept because it fundamentally alters the relationship between the party’s elected leadership and the rank-and-file members.

A recent paper, published before the Nov. 2, 2010 election by former Oklahoma Republican Congressman Ernest Istook, Michael G. Franc, and Matthew Spalding, Ph.D., for the conservative Heritage Foundation, recommends a set of reforms “of both parties’ internal caucus rules in order to reverse the decades-long trend whereby House leaders have acquired enormous power at the expense of rank-and-file members.”

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While not going so far as the early 20th Century rebellion against Speaker Joseph ‘Czar’ Cannon, who was known for his nearly dictatorial rule, the argument they are making has been out there at least since the mid-1970s, when the large Democratic freshman class swept into office in the post-Watergate election started down the road toward what political scientist Christopher Deering termed “subcommittee government,” which divided power among the members of the majority party in ways that were new and, for Congress, different.

Istook, Franc, and Spaulding argue that making Congress “more responsive to the American people requires something more than just changing the players”--meaning swapping the Democrats for the Republicans--is needed. In fact, they argue, it is the very mechanisms by which Congress organizes itself that needs to be change in recognition of the fact that “the authority of congressional leaders is not intrinsic to their leadership position.”

“It flows from the Congress as a whole and from the majority party controlling Congress in particular rather than any grant of constitutional power,” they write. “The rules and processes by which Congress operates should reflect the proper understanding of how the Constitution decentralizes and limits the power of government in general and legislative power in particular.” “This requires,” they suggest, “rules and processes that best enable rank-and-file Members to participate fully in all the roles, most prominently legislative and oversight, that the House is asked to fulfill” by the Constitution.

What they are recommending, therefore, is increased decentralization, beginning with what are called “steering committees,” a small body each party uses in which votes are apportioned unequally between members that makes the decisions about who will chair committees and who will serve on them.

Typically the elected leadership dominates the these committees though, to his credit, Boehner has led a restructuring of the GOP steering committee for the incoming Congress to allow more freshmen to be represented on it.

Istook, Franc, and Spaulding recommend four reforms in particular which, while potentially popular with the rank-and-file because they would expand their voice and give them a certain degree of increased power, would dilute the authority of the elected leadership and committee chairmen, thus making them difficult to enact:

  • The steering committee, rather than party leaders, should select all committee chairmen and members (including Rules, Administration, “select” and “joint” committees). (Party rules now give the Republican leader, they write “almost sole authority” to make these appointments, subject to the approval of the entire conference.)
  • Party leaders should no longer dominate or control the steering committee. In practice, this would dispense with the allotment of multiple steering committee slots to party leaders and would allow rank-and-file Representatives to nominate and elect the controlling votes on each steering committee.
  • Term limits should apply to all House and party leaders, including the speaker, as well as to committee chairmen and ranking members. (Though they currently exist for committee chairmen and ranking members, there are not “uniformly applied term limits to other leadership positions, most notably the Speaker.”)
  • A cap should be placed on the overall size of each committee--such as a 50-member maximum--to avoid scenarios where committees wield a disproportionate amount of influence over the House.
  • This last point is an especially interesting one. “When a committee grows too large, a savvy committee chairman can wield undue influence on the House floor though committee bloc voting,” which can be a real impediment to efforts to, for example, rein in spending.

    It is almost certain, say sources on Capitol Hill, that Boehner means business when he says the House will, under his leadership, be run in a way much different than that of his immediate predecessor. The reforms being proposed in the Heritage paper may represent one or two bridges too far at the moment but more decentralization is clearly coming. It is likely to stop, for the moment, at the level of the committee chairs, who have apparently argued successfully for a greater level of autonomy in setting their agendas. It is also true that fundamental changes to the House schedule that a rumored to be under consideration may make a more decentralized process as requirement for organizational success. On a day-to-day basis, Boehner’s style seems to be much more a search for consensus rather than the autocracy it just replaced.

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