This is the original opinion piece I wrote on this topic back in early November. I was trying to get it published in a major newspaper or on a major web site, but to no avail. So you can read it here instead….
As the post-election talk of bipartisan compromise rapidly degenerates into the usual intractable positions, Washington is assuming that the House leadership will remain unchanged. John Boehner may have enough Republican support to remain the Speaker under nominal circumstances, but there may be another possibility.
If House Democrats and moderate House Republicans work together, they could elect a more moderate Speaker who would find more common ground with the Senate and the President. So who could possibly be convinced to change their vote, what could convince them, and who would they elect Speaker?
Democrats have won a confirmed 194 seats in the house, and 7 more races are leaning their way with no winner yet declared. That means that Democrats need 17 to 24 more votes in order to elect a Speaker. If they could find that many moderate Republicans to vote with them, they could form a centrist coalition.
Believe it or not, there are a few moderate Republicans left in the House. In fact, if you look at a rating system for liberal vs. conservative such as that of the National Journal or thatsmycongress.com, a few Republicans are even to the left of a couple Dems. There’s a group of moderates called the Republican Main Street Partnership. And the Tuesday Group is an informal set of about 40 centrist House Republicans who meet on a regular basis. Though there are still fairly conservative Republicans in these groups, they are marked more by who isn’t in them. There are no tea partiers, no rape questioners, and no evolution deniers. There are none of the irresponsible people who have been holding the legislative process hostage.
So there is a group of moderates that self-identify as such. But how to persuade them? What can you offer these people to buy their loyalty? What else? Committee chairs! There are 21 House committees. Each chair is quite powerful and it normally takes years to attain the seniority to be a committee chairman. Some of the moderates are subcommittee chairs, but only a couple are committee chairs. Not surprising, since the moderates are at the fringe of their party. So this would mean a great deal to most moderates. Giving and taking away committee and subcommittee chairs is a common way of rewarding and punishing members, so this type of incentive isn’t new.
They could also be offered leadership positions such as the equivalent of Majority Leader and Majority Whip. (In a cross-party coalition, it might make more sense to call them “Coalition Leader” and “Coalition Whip”.) That’s two more posts, for a total so far of 23.
And then of course, there’s the biggest prize of all, Speaker of the House. Because one lucky moderate Republican would get to be the head honcho. Of course Democrats would like it to be one of their own, but I just don’t think that dog will hunt. For one thing, it’s a great prize so it’s very useful as a reward for one of the moderates, especially for one who is already a committee chair. Secondly, the outcry among the Republicans would be so much worse if the office went to a Democrat. And third, the public reaction could be explosive. The public may not be ready for such a maneuver and would not understand it. So it could really be seen as stealing power in an unfair or even unconstitutional way if the power shifted to Democrats. And perceptions do matter. That makes a total of 24 positions that could be offered as incentives.
Armed with such a treasure chest, the President or Nancy Pelosi or their intermediaries could make contact with a carefully chosen group of moderate Republicans. I’m sure this would take a great deal of finesse. There’s no way such a large group could be approached in secret, so there would be risk for the moderates to even be seen listening to the overture.
Even if they did decide to cooperate, how could these moderate Republicans help elect a moderate Speaker? According to the website of the Clerk of the House, the Speaker of the House is elected at the beginning of each congress, when it convenes on January 3rd of add-numbered years. Each party nominates a candidate for Speaker. Then a roll call vote is held, with a majority of those voting required to pick a Speaker. Normally each party chooses a nominee behind closed doors beforehand, and normally this is their leader in the House. The minority party usually nominates their presumptive Minority Leader. Last time it was Nancy Pelosi. But as we saw on January 3rd, 2011, a few Democrats voted for someone besides Pelosi in protest.
This time, the Democrats would nominate the moderate Republican pre-arranged to be the Speaker. And then it’s simply a matter of all the Democrats and all the chosen moderate Republicans voting for that nominee. That’s it. Then according to traditional House rules, the Speaker runs the show from there. He presides over the chamber or picks someone to fill in for him. He and his leadership guides the writing of the House rules and ushers them to passage. In short, once the Speaker is in place and has a working majority, the hard work is done.
Why hasn’t this been done before? Variations on it have, or have been contemplated. In 1855 when there were three parties represented in the House, none with a majority, the nascent Republicans nominated a Speaker from the American Party and those two parties controlled the House as a coalition. There were several more instances when third parties forced coalitions or inter-party deals to elect a Speaker. In the summer of 1997, despite pressure within his party to resign the speakership, Newt Gingrich refused citing the possibility that disaffected Republicans would join forces with Democrats to elect a Democratic Speaker, Dick Gephardt.
While there may be some precedent, this type of deal certainly isn’t common, so why is now the right moment? For one, there has never been a time when there has been so much gridlock and such a backlog of important issues that need addressing. That means everyone on the left and in the center badly want progress on a raft of issues. It also means that moderate Republicans who took the deal could get credit for passing landmark legislation on numerous issues such as the budget, immigration, tax reform, and even campaign finance.
Also, moderates have never been so marginalized and neglected. The members of the House in the RMSP are all relatively obscure. They must hunger to make a difference. Also, conditions are ripe in the other centers of power. The White House and the Senate are controlled by Dems ready to make a deal and a President with nothing to lose and a legacy to gain.
Another factor is that one of the tools parties use to keep members in line – redistricting – won’t be a factor again for 10 years. Wayward Republicans can’t be redistricted into oblivion for a long time. And the moderate Republicans could be guaranteed safety from attacks from the left by the Democrats as part of the deal. Their biggest risk would be primary challenges from conservative challengers. But the Dems could also offer to help them switch parties if they were defeated in their Republican primary. But what it comes down to is the opportunity to be kingmakers and grand legislators for two years. A lot can be done in two years.
And what about the Democratic members of the House? Would they go along? Would they vote for a Republican Speaker? I think they would because they also hunger to be part of history instead of sitting on the sidelines – as the minority always does in the House. But more importantly, they would do it because the leader of their party – President Obama – asked them to.
Why is it so important to have a moderate House leadership? Because the leadership sets the agenda, it decides what the House will vote on. Unlike the Senate, House rules allow the majority leadership (usually the majority party leadership) to maintain strict discipline. The leadership decides what bills can be voted on and which ones languish. It decides when to end debate. That’s why changing the rules is important, too. But new rules aren’t enough, most importantly because the vote for Speaker happens before the adoption of the rules, so the Speaker and his leadership team essentially sets the rules. All this means that the House leadership has the power to negotiate for the House when hammering out any piece of legislation.
So why not try? The Democratic leadership should try to put the speakership and the House leadership in the hands of moderates. With a deal that includes more flexible House rules and the assurance of continuing support from even the most liberal Democrats. Beyond that, rely on moderate Republicans to be moderate and to take the opportunity to make history by working with the Senate and the administration. Along with filibuster reform in the Senate, this could break the gridlock and allow a broad centrist coalition to solve our nation’s biggest problems.
Some people would surely see this approach as stealing control of the House. In a way, maybe it is. John Boehner has said that the people elected a Republican House and that gives him a mandate to block tax increases and whatever other issues his Republican majority ran on. But what each American actually did was to individually vote for their own congressman. And each of those congressmen has every right to exercise his or her own individual vote for Speaker as well as for any bill. That’s representative democracy in action. Is it stealing? I say yes, in the sense that stealing second base is stealing in baseball. It’s stealing, but it’s not cheating. It’s part of the game.
And for a video on this, click here.