Decentralization of Power in Congress


The tumultuous process of the Republican Party’s effort to elect Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) as speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives played out like a slow-motion car crash on a NASCAR racetrack. In a voting ritual that had largely been pro-forma for more than a century — with the party holding the majority of seats in the chamber anointing that party’s consensus choice for the speaker position — a group of hard-right Republican dissidents refused to go along with the majority. Many predicted that the holdouts would relent after a couple of rounds of voting. But that’s not what happened.

Late on Jan. 6, after an unprecedented 15 rounds, the ordeal finally ended. McCarthy got his majority vote. But the victory came at a price. In addition to the very public revelation of the dysfunctionality of the Republican Party in what should have been a celebratory elevation of one of its leaders, McCarthy was forced to give in to the holdouts on several of the group’s governance and process demands.

Those bucking the system were made up primarily of members of the far-right House Freedom Caucus. Some holdouts had a score to settle with McCarthy and refused to support his candidacy under any conditions. Others demanded a long list of procedural and operational concessions for the conduct of business in the House, which would elevate their influence notwithstanding their relatively small numbers and enable them to pursue their agenda without many of the limitations built into past practice.

We are concerned that some of McCarthy’s forced concessions could gum up the administrative process in the House and unnecessarily interfere with the orderly operation of important legislative work in the chamber. But there is one concession relating to an expansion of legislative and appropriations opportunities in the House that could benefit a wide cross-section of House members.

Over the last couple of decades, we have seen a significant consolidation of power by House leadership on both sides of the aisle. It began when Republicans were in power in the 1990s and has continued until now. Under this approach, majority and minority leaders in the House exert significant control over rulemaking, the legislative process and the appropriations process. Those not in leadership have little opportunity for input, as many bills and related appropriations decisions are not routinely run through a comprehensive committee process. The holdout group insisted on changes that will decentralize control in the House and open opportunities for a more democratic process, including a more open use of the committee process. McCarthy reluctantly agreed.

We recognize that the House Freedom Caucus has a wholly unappealing agenda. We oppose their efforts to cause chaos in the House. We oppose their effort to force a default on the national debt. We oppose virtually everything the group stands for and is trying to accomplish. But some of the governance changes they have demanded could lead to favorable results for rank-and-file members in the House — and that could be a good thing. ■

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