Can the House Speakership Be Saved? These Lawmakers Have an Idea

Potential changes to the speakership would face considerable opposition from party leaders on both sides since the clear intent is to dilute their power in an institution where the speaker wields tremendous authority.

WASHINGTON — It is Jan. 3, 2019, and the House is convening for the first session of the 116th Congress.

As a result of internal opposition, Representative Nancy Pelosi of California is just short of the necessary votes to be elected speaker even though Democrats won the majority in November. Or perhaps Republicans, their majority preserved but severely diminished, cannot marshal the needed votes for a speaker because of a revolt by far-right conservatives. Either way, the House is at a historic impasse.

To some lawmakers and advocates of overhaul, that tense moment would present not a governing crisis, but a chance to defuse some of the partisanship plaguing Washington. They believe it could provide a rare opening to institute changes that potentially include a new method of electing the speaker. The idea would be to restore the role to its intended purpose of serving as leader of the whole House rather than the highly partisan and polarizing position it has become.

Under emerging proposals, the winning speaker candidate would be required to receive some support from the minority, forcing outreach across the aisle that would foster bipartisanship and reduce the influence of more extreme elements of both parties. Supporters believe that the changes, combined with other proposals to empower the rank and file, could breathe some legislative life back into the House.

“At the end of the day, we have to break the gridlock,” said Representative Fred Upton, a senior Michigan Republican who, as a member of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, is helping draft and sell the plan. “We want to break the rules and really bring function back to the House.”

He and other lawmakers say frustration is mounting because the current House leadership, catering to its most conservative members, refuses to move forward with proposals such as changes in immigration policy that have broad bipartisan support. Measures with hundreds of co-sponsors go nowhere.

“Many of us, like the country, are very frustrated,” said Representative Josh Gottheimer, a freshman Democrat from New Jersey who is co-chairman of the Problem Solvers Caucus along with Representative Tom Reed, Republican of New York. “We just want to have a debate on the House floor and bring things up for a vote.”

Such changes would face considerable opposition from party leaders on both sides since the clear intent is to dilute their power in an institution where the speaker wields tremendous authority. The proposal would also mean that some lawmakers would have to make the politically perilous decision to support a speaker from the other party.

But backers of an overhaul, which is being promoted by the bipartisan advocacy group No Labels, say the governing climate in Congress has deteriorated so badly that drastic measures are in order. They say the likely circumstances surrounding the election of the next speaker could make possible a daring power play that would have had zero chance in the past.

Most forecasts at the moment anticipate that the party that captures the House will have a relatively narrow advantage, so corralling 218 votes for speaker will be no sure thing. That means a small group of lawmakers could form a bloc to control the outcome.

The Problem Solvers Caucus contains 48 members equally divided between Democrats and Republicans, probably more than enough to prevent the election of a speaker until demands for rules changes are met. A group of Republican reformers used the tactic in 1923 to loosen the leadership reins on the House.

“With narrow majorities on either side, there is a maximally favorable opportunity to seize the moment,” said William A. Galston, a senior fellow in governance at the Brookings Institution who first aired a similar plan five years ago as a way to resurrect bipartisan coalition-building.

The original idea by Mr. Galston and a colleague was to require the speaker to win the support of 60 percent of the membership, a fairly high bar. The group No Labels, through what it is calling the Speaker Project, is proposing that the number of votes needed to become speaker would be equal to the majority party’s full membership, in addition to five from the minority party. No speaker could serve without at least some minority support.

Members of the Problem Solvers Caucus have been meeting to review their ideas to see if they can reach a consensus on a package of rules changes. Together, the lawmakers and outside supporters hope to build momentum for the changes among colleagues, congressional candidates and voters heading into the midterm elections. They would then try to enact them either through party organizing meetings in November or via a floor fight in January.

“It seems like there is disruption brewing,” said Nancy Jacobson, founder and head of No Labels. “I feel like it is ripe.”

Any change in the election of a speaker is potentially explosive, and lawmakers are treading carefully.

“It is definitely one of the ideas that we are batting around,” Mr. Gottheimer said. “Our goal is to have the speaker of the House representing both sides, so we are trying to figure out if there are other changes that might make sense to achieve that same objective.”

While the speaker proposal might be the most striking, other ideas could make significant differences in how the House operates. One would eliminate the ability of a single lawmaker to force a vote on a call to “vacate” the speaker’s chair — a threat that helped drive John A. Boehner from office in 2015. Critics believe that ability to challenge the speaker has given hard-right elements of the Republican majority too much clout.

Other proposals include preventing the leadership from blocking votes on relevant floor amendments that have strong support, and requiring that bills receive consideration by the relevant committee rather than emerging from leadership office suites. Differences between House and Senate bills would also have to be reconciled by actual conference committees rather than in informal talks at the leadership level.

The lawmakers calling for change say now is the perfect time to make the case, since it is unknown which party will control the House next year, making it difficult to argue that the overhaul is directed at one party or the other. They hope to unveil a set of reforms with some fanfare this summer.

Proposing an overhaul will certainly be easier than enacting one. But it is a telling commentary on the sorry state of the House when significant numbers of lawmakers are willing to risk the wrath of party leaders by even suggesting such a set of changes.

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