The dysfunction of the U.S. House speaker

As a low-rent local elected official, I know I am substantially worthless. I can decide absolutely nothing, but as a member of a seven member board, I can only get something done if I can convince three other members to vote with me to do something. This is why the phrase, “Can you count to 4,” is significant in a seven member board.

Our Congress isn’t much different. With 435 members of the United States House of Representatives, the question is if you can count to 218. Under current circumstances, this presents an interesting challenge.

The House is currently comprised of 237 Republicans, 193 Democrats, and there are five vacancies. If you can get all 237 Republicans to agree on something, you can reach a decision. However, last week’s failure of the House Republicans to gather 218 members to support a health insurance bill illustrates a fatal flaw in the current House structure.

If you look at the current House mathematics, you need to consider the dynamics of the Republican caucus. Let’s start with one of the driving factors of the GOP split, the 23 Republicans who represent districts that voted for Hillary Clinton.

Clinton GOP
GOP Representatives in Clinton districts

So, if you do some simple subtraction, taking 23 moderates away from 237 Republicans, you find yourself at 214. Similarly, if you remove approximately 30 members of the Freedom Caucus, your 237 member majority suddenly looks like a 207 member minority.

Republicans in Congress
Congressional Republicans by faction

If you start at the far right of the distribution with a policy proposal, chances are you are going to run out of yes votes before you get to 218. Similarly, if you restrict yourself to Republican members,start with the moderates, and move right, you are going to see the Freedom Caucus drop away.

Entire congress

The message is simple. A governing majority needs to somewhere near the middle, and cannot limit itself to one party. This is going to become more crucial if the probable outcome in 2018, a Republican loss of 10-15 seats, will leave the GOP with a razor-thin majority.

To legislate successfully, you need a Speaker of the House who can determine the will of the Congress, and lead it to that position. However, the role of the Speaker has transformed from the leader of the entire House of Representatives to a kind of uber-majority leader. The Hastert rule, where the Speaker was bound by the majority of the majority, effectively puts him in the position of supporting the position of the 119 most conservative Republicans in the House.

I don’t know how we are going to get there, but we need to find a way to get a more neutral Speaker, one that has the support of members from both parties. We need a Speaker who can work from the center and be able to bring the majority and minority leaders into the room and craft legislation that can achieve 218 votes. So, you lose 30 far-right Republicans, you can pick up 50 centerist Democrats and put together a governing coalition that stands a better chance of gaining acceptance of the American public.

Think about it. If the Speaker was focused on the will of the majority of all members, not just the majority of the majority, we would have had no problem passing an immigration reform proposal backed by George W. Bush and John McCain, many Democrats, a majority of the entire Congress, but not a majority of members of the Republican caucus.

Corker tweet

The ideal candidate for Speaker would be one of those Clinton-district Republican moderates, someone who is friendly with and can work with Democrats. We need someone who is more interested in representing the will of Congress, rather than advocating for a ideological or partisan position through the Speaker’s chair. The partisan advocates should be the majority leader and the minority leader; the Speaker should represent the entire Congress.