The House of Representatives Is a Mess

Speaker Paul Ryan does not seem to realize how little his House is able to do.

Broken gavel?

Photographer: Win McNamee

Let's be clear on this: The House of Representatives right now is just a total disgrace.

I'm fed up with them now after yet another attempt to put together a health care reform bill. Not because of the content of the bill ... well, that is, the content of the tentative agreement on a concept, or an idea, or whatever they think they're doing without actually having, so far at least, any legislative language. Let alone a Congressional Budget Office score which might tell them how much their bill costs or what it would actually accomplish. No, the problem here is process. It ain't legislating in a way that is likely to produce coherent public policy.

Once upon a time, House committees would develop legislation. They would hold hearings, draft bills (usually with plenty of behind-the-scenes negotiating with relevant interest groups, to be sure), then move to committee mark-ups where anyone could offer amendments, followed by floor debates with more amendments. Committees would build up expertise over time, and long-term relationships with both policy experts and interest groups. Was it perfect? Of course not. But the chances of creating viable public policy were fairly good.

That "textbook" Congress is long gone, to be sure. Inserted into the process some time ago was another step in which the House majority party leadership would intercede between the committee process and floor debate, especially for bills that had be referred to multiple committees, and make significant changes. That could work, too. Committees in many cases still did the bulk of the work, and the best modern speakers of the House were honest brokers between party factions; they might not have been real policy experts, but their excellent political instincts and skills helped produce laws that respected a wide range of organized groups. 1

Indeed, one might argue that shifting influence from largely autonomous committees to the party caucus made the House better at representing the nation without sacrificing expertise. 2

Almost none of the virtues of the textbook House or the reformed House have been displayed in the pathetic Republican search for health care reform. 

The bill was written by the House leadership, in secret, without any formal input from public hearings and seemingly without much informal input from organized groups with a stake in health care, at least judging from their reaction once the bill was introduced. It was then railroaded through committee, only to be renegotiated because -- surprise! -- it turned out that bills written without anyone's input tend not to be very popular. So the bill collapsed, unable to find enough majority-party votes to pass the House.

Process may seem boring to many, and it certainly is easy to lampoon from the campaign trail. It also matters a lot within Congress if you want policy to come out right. Writing bills without input leads to a mess, whether it was Bill Clinton's attempt to write a health care bill in the White House without listening to anyone, or Speaker Paul Ryan's attempt to do the same thing this year. 

And now we're in a stage featuring ad-hoc negotiations by individual members of the House who may or may not understand the basic (but, as the president recently discovered, extremely complicated) issues involved and may or may not represent anyone beyond themselves. Again, never mind the content -- this just isn't a process that has any kind of decent chance to produce policy that will work at all. That is, even if they do eventually manage to pass anything, it's unlikely to succeed on the bill sponsors' own terms, regardless of whether one agrees with those goals or not. More likely, the repeated flare-up and failure of attempts at a health care bill just make the House, the Republican Party, and its leaders look increasingly foolish and pathetic. 

And, yes, that has serious implications for the tax bill Congress is attempting to put together now, too. There's just very little expertise involved in developing bills in the House these days, so glitches and errors and full-scale policy disasters are, unfortunately, reasonable to expect. If they do manage to pass a tax bill, we'll no doubt find it creates all sorts of perverse and unintended incentives for taxpayers and business, because that's what happens when you monkey with the tax code without extensive expertise. 

And so far we've only talked about the House. What will happen when the Senate decides to enter the legislative fray? Or the White House, for that matter? Past White Houses might have played a constructive role at any point of the process. This White House? The president and his staff seem entirely uninvolved in serious legislating, but happy to lob the occasional grenade or falsely claim a deal is practically done, thereby unrealistically raising hopes for a bill that doesn't actually have support. 

The House, meanwhile, is likely to get worse before it gets better. Right now they mostly ignore the experts that are still around (such as at the Congressional Budget Office), but without support those institutions will atrophy or worse. Competent committee staffers will depart, too, if they are systematically bypassed. So much damage has been done already that at this point I doubt that Ryan even realizes how little his House is able to do.

It's terrible for the Republican Party, and terrible for democratic governance of the nation. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

  1. At least, those with any importance in the majority party. It's a fair criticism of the modern, post-reform House (under majorities from either party, but the rules and practices were set under Democratic majorities in the 1970s and 1980s) that the minority party was often entirely powerless. 

  2. The older process was accused of yielding "iron triangles" in which only some organized groups were able to participate, while others were locked out because they hadn't developed relationships with the relevant committees. Bringing in the party opened up new avenues for access. 

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Mike Nizza at mnizza3@bloomberg.net

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