Now that it’s settled down to just a low simmer, the revolt by members of the ultra-conservative Freedom Caucus in the US House of Representatives has mostly left the front pages. But it would be fair to say that it hasn’t been resolved—merely cooled for the moment. Since it could flare up again at any time, it’s worth taking a step back and looking at why, in the long run, the House might be better off because of it.
First, though, let’s recap. As you may recall, the whole thing began when some of the House GOP caucus’s most conservative members decided to use more than words to express their displeasure with the debt ceiling agreement struck between President Joe Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. In essence, they took their own party’s agenda hostage, with 11 of them siding with Democrats on a procedural vote that halted progress on several Republican-sponsored bills. In the closely divided House, this was enough to produce a week of gridlock early in June, while McCarthy and the rebels huddled to try to come to terms.
They emerged with an agreement to allow the blocked bills and other measures to move forward—and a warning from the rebels that they could grind things to a halt again if they don’t see progress on a “power-sharing” deal with McCarthy. "We want to work on an accountability regime and a power sharing agreement," said one of the hardliners, Rep. Matt Gaetz. "We want to see House conservatives in a position to be able to enforce the agreements that we all make."
Democrats, of course, watched all this gleefully, and while some conservative commentators praised the rebels for insisting on steeper cuts to federal spending, others lamented the talking points the move handed to people who criticize the House GOP caucus for being unable to govern. "It…gives the usual media suspects grist for more rounds of 'Republican infighting/incompetence' stories,’” fumed the New York Post editorial board.
To me, however, what was most noticeable about the whole affair was not the politics of the moment, but that it a major detour from the long march in the House toward what detractors call “the imperial speakership”—a handy shorthand for the decades-long trend, under both Democratic and Republican leaders, to consolidate power in the hands of just a few leaders.
There is no question that this has made for more efficiency in the House by keeping debate and amendments to a minimum and wrapping multiple pieces of legislation that ought to get their own votes into a single omnibus package that most members barely get a chance to read. The tradeoff, at least in the past, has been that the leadership protects members of their own party from politically touchy votes.
But the cost to American democracy has been high. The House—unlike any other institution in Washington—was designed by the architects of our republic to be the people’s body, the most representative of our nation’s diverse and ever-changing population. Over the country’s history, it developed a robust committee system, rules for floor debate, and other procedures designed to give ordinary representatives a chance to do just that: represent the American people. The consolidation of so much power in leaders’ hands has circumvented all that—and, arguably, made the House more prone to partisanship and more inclined toward the extremes, since the majority leadership cares mostly about pleasing its own base, not forging common ground across the aisle.
There are any number of issues on which I part company with the members of the Freedom Caucus. But on this front, I have considerable sympathy—as do other observers who care about a House of Representatives that can function as its creators intended and as it did for much of its history. As former Democratic Rep. Dan Lipinski argues in a recent op-ed, “If the House does not change, its members will continue to fail in representing their constituents in the legislative process on most major issues.” That’s an issue we all should care about, regardless of party.