The House speakership fight was not a good omen for this Congress

Voters cast their ballots for members of Congress for any number of reasons. They like the candidate. Or they’re angry at the status quo. Or a candidate’s views coincide with their own. Or they can’t abide the opposition. But if there’s a single thread that runs through all the considerations most voters carry into the polling place with them, it’s that they want their choice to get things done in Washington. In fact, they want Congress as a whole to get things done in Washington.

Which is why the speakership fight that ultimately resulted in California Republican Kevin McCarthy taking the gavel was more than riveting political theater: It was also a gloomy portent for what lies ahead. While there were some promising developments as negotiations progressed, to my mind both House Republicans and House Democrats now have something to prove if they want to earn the respect of ordinary Americans. Why? Because to get things done in a concrete and lasting way requires bipartisanship, and the speakership fight set the House off in the opposite direction.

Let’s talk first about where we can find encouragement. Although details remain vague about aspects of McCarthy’s agreement with the members of his caucus who opposed him, the new Republican majority is pressing ahead with some rules changes that may boost rank-and-file House members’ ability to play a role in lawmaking. For one thing, they want to give members more time to study bills—a reaction to the trend under both Republican and Democratic speakers of wrapping huge spending packages into must-pass “omnibus” bills and then giving members scant time to understand what was in them.

Republicans have also talked about restoring some elements of the old “regular order,” under which committees and subcommittees with expertise and subject-matter knowledge vetted spending bills, usually with open doors and public scrutiny, before sending them to the floor—where they were open to amendments. In a far more partisan Congress, that process has essentially gone by the wayside, after members of minority caucuses used it to pursue political point-scoring.

In a House more inclined to bipartisanship, opening up the process could lead to greater democratization—and to making Congress a more truly representative institution, as a broader cross-section of individual members gained a voice. But what the speakership fight also demonstrated was that partisanship remains the order of the day.

On the Republican side, members have made clear that they intend to use the powers of the House majority to score political points, especially against the Biden White House, by using oversight committees to investigate a litany of complaints and by boosting the strength of the GOP caucus’s most extreme members. The new rules package also allows legislators to use spending bills to defund specific programs and to fire federal officials or reduce their pay. With a Democratic Senate and president, these are unlikely to go anywhere, but they set the stage for intensely partisan standoffs—as, of course, does the looming battle over the debt ceiling, on which it’s unclear how much negotiating room McCarthy left himself.

But by sitting back during the internal machinations of the Republican caucus over the speakership, Democrats also signaled that in a tightly divided chamber they were more inclined to allow partisanship to rule than to take steps to reduce its hold by finding a way to work with GOP pragmatists. This was an understandable political calculation, but also a missed opportunity to shift the House in a different direction and lessen the strength of its most extreme members.

The result is that, after two years in which Congress was able to make bipartisan strides on a few issues, that kind of progress is now less likely. Because the plain fact is that over many years of watching Congress at work, I’ve learned that getting things done in a sustainable way—that is, not just over weeks or months, but for years—requires members of both parties to cooperate. With power spread broadly in government, moving the country forward takes real effort to overcome differences and bring people together. So far, the House isn’t off to a good start.

Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar at the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

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