Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), the Speaker in waiting, reportedly has promised to shift some power over policymaking back to committees. This is good to hear. The history of the House of Representatives over the past 50 years is a story of power flowing upward to the Speaker.
As Don Wolfensberger recently pointed out in this publication, for much of the 20th century, the House was a place where members of both parties had opportunities to bargain with one another to forge bipartisan compromises that pleased voters generally. The process was often messy with bills being debated and amended in committee and then on the floor, but it tended to work. Legislators got to be lawmakers, and the Speaker was very much a facilitator who partnered with the committee chairs to get things done.
For various reasons, unfortunately, Democrats and then Republicans chose to abandon that bottom-up, pluralistic approach in favor of more of a winner-take-all model of governing. The House’s rules were changed to give the Speaker greater sway over who became committee chairs and who sat on the Rules Committee. Majority legislators also began to rely heavily on the Speaker to fundraise for them, and to declare the party’s legislative agenda. Getting a bill passed devolved into a top-down exercise led by the Speaker, his leadership team, and the Rules Committee. They would craft bills, often omnibuses, and present them to the chamber for an up or down vote…. (Read more)