Before the New Year, David Simpson sent a letter to his House colleagues outlining his suggestions for revising the House Rules. I have considerable admiration for his efforts, and some of his ideas are worth implementing, starting with limiting the presence of committee chairs on Calendars. Simpson is correct in saying that this concentrates power in the House. That said, Simpson is raising a far more basic issue: whether his rules proposals strengthen or weaken the speakership.
The Simpson reforms and my evaluations of them:
1. The Speaker may not contribute to or endorse candidates in primaries or in the general elections. Current practice engenders a culture of power politics.
–Evaluation: All politics is power politics. The issue is not whether speaker contributions amount to “power politics”; it is whether the speakership is to be a strong office or a weak office. The prohibition on contributions weakens the ability of the speaker to lead the House–to build a leadership team. (It is also probably unconstitutional under the Citizens United decision.)
2. Committees should be appointed promptly, as previous speakers have done.
–Evaluation: Previous speakers have not appointed committees “promptly.” The process of appointing committees is inherently time consuming. The speaker usually meets with every member, discusses his or her preferences for committee assignments, and tries to satisfy the members to the extent that it is possible to do so. Then it becomes a giant jigsaw puzzle. “Committee hell,” Straus described it to me after he made the appointments for the first time, in 2009. Every meeting with a member is extremely important to that member. It usually takes until the last week of February or the first week of March to finish making the committee assignments.
3. Reduce the presence of committee chairs on Calendars.
–Evaluation: Simpson’s objection is that the presence of chairs on Calendars concentrates power in the hands of a few. He is right about the consequence, but it is also true that chairs are likely to be the most experienced members when it comes to evaluating legislation. Perhaps there should be a limit on chairs rather than an outright prohibition.
4. Simpson calls for a “reasonable and practical work schedule” in the early months of the session.
–Evaluation: There is no easy way to accelerate the process. The Constitution reserves the first thirty days for the introduction of bills and resolutions and emergency appropriations. The succeeding thirty days is for committees to hold hearings to consider bills. The end of a session is almost always marked by long calendars and frantic efforts to pass or kill bills. It has been ever thus. The only way to accelerate the process early in a session (the first sixty days) is by suspending the rules (requiring a 4/5 vote), which is a difficult majority to obtain.
5. Require conference committees authorized to “go outside the bounds” to meet in public and post notice of the meeting.
–Evaluation: In an ideal world, conference committees would seek the proper authorization to go outside the bounds and the notice of the public meeting would be posted. However, conferees have been able to avoid meeting in public for several years simply by breaking up into small groups, away from public view, that don’t violate the Open Meetings Act. Simpson’s proposal can be defeated by wiring around the open meetings law.
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As I said above, I admire Simpson’s efforts to improve the process of moving legislation through the House. My concern is that the net effect of his proposals is to weaken the speakership. Simpson wants to tie the hands of the speaker in making contributions, in the length of time that he has to make committee appointments, and in limiting who can serve on Calendars. The most important aspect of politics is leadership, and the Simpson reforms would make it more difficult for the speaker to lead by reducing his options concerning scheduling and committee membership.