What Do Conservative Rebels in the House Really Want?

The House Freedom Caucus doesn’t just want a more conservative Speaker. They also want a change in governance: a commitment to “regular order,” which basically means less power to the Speaker and more power to committee chairs. This would return the House to its historic power distribution, which was transformed to give the Speaker more power starting in the post-Watergate era and then picked up steam when Newt Gingrich consolidated power in 1995. It’s gotten even more marked in recent years, as John Boehner and other Republican speakers found that in the modern era they could barely get anything done in the GOP caucus without forcing it through themselves.

So what would happen if committee chairs became more powerful and could no longer be easily bypassed by a powerful Speaker? Lee Drutman tells us:

In his forthcoming paper on congressional leaders bypassing committees, [William] Bendix leverages variation in committees to explain why some committees get bypassed more often than others.

One reason is that some committees are too moderate. As he writes: “I find evidence that the most moderate panels are regularly excluded from legislative deliberations. … Because they may produce bills that move policy away from the majority’s median, they are likely to lose their bill-drafting responsibilities.”

The other reason is that some committees are too polarized to have any productive deliberations, and letting these committees handle bills just produces partisan spectacle. What this suggests is that if more bills were to go through committees, we might get more moderate policy in some places, and perhaps even more contentious policy in other places. Then again, who knows — if committees were given more responsibility and staff and space to deliberate, they might reach some unexpected agreements.

This sounds an awful lot to me like Speakers bypass committee chairs whenever they don’t like what the committees are doing. The tea partiers in the HFC thus think that if the power of the Speaker is reined in, true conservatism will flower because the Speaker will no longer have the authority to ignore it and bring bills to a vote on his own. Maybe. I guess.

But I doubt it. In the end, Drutman thinks that decentralizing power in the House would lead to more moderate policy. “My prediction is you’d see more moderate Republicans joining with most Democrats in opposition, just as you’ve seen moderate Republicans joining with most Democrats to keep the government funded and the country from defaulting on its debt.”

I doubt that too. Previous debt default crises have been overcome only because Boehner eventually forced action. If a Speaker could no longer do that, it’s hard to see what would prevent a default if it got bottled up in a committee headed by an HFC true believer.

So my prediction is: it would produce more chaos. Some bills would get easier to pass and some would get harder to pass. Which ones? It would be the luck of the draw. Some committees would be chaired by traditional dealmakers and some would be chaired by fire-breathing tea partiers. That would probably be fun for journalists, but not so much for the rest of us.