Speaker McCarthy’s Deal With The House Freedom Caucus— Good for America?
There is a big farm across the street from my neighborhood. In 2017, the white fence surrounding the farm had a huge "Farmers for Trump” sign on it. In 2020, that sign came down and a “Trump 2020-No More Bullshit” sign went up. Six months ago, a different one appeared: “Good for Congress. Better for Us.”
This is how I learned about my congressman, Bob Good. Good was one of the first Republicans to denounce Kevin McCarthy’s speaker bid and one of the final holdouts. His “present” vote on the 15th ballot allowed McCarthy to squeeze by and get the gavel.
Some of what we know about the McCarthy’s deal makes me nervous. But it’s possible that, in the long run, McCarthy’s deal with Good (and other members of the House Freedom Caucus) might be good for Congress and good for America.
Before I share my hopes, I’ll start with my fears. I’m nervous about how the debt ceiling fight will play out. Consider Good’s comments to constituents at a recent town hall. “Buckle up,” he said. “We’re going to get accused of threatening the full faith and credit of the U.S. government. It’s already started.” He said constituents might “hear alarm bells” about defaulting on the nation’s debts.
Well, Mr. Congressman, we should be hearing alarm bells. If we don’t raise the debt ceiling, we will trigger an economic catastrophe. Even getting close to the cliff (such as what happened in 2011) could lower our nation’s credit rating. While we must raise the debt ceiling, it’s also true that to avoid a future downgrade, as credit rating agency Standard & Poor’s commented in 2011, the United States must develop a "credible plan to tackle the nation's long-term debt.”
I couldn’t agree more. Spending in Washington, D.C. is a bipartisan problem. According to Brian Riedl, a conservative economist who worked at the Heritage Foundation and as chief economist to Sen. Robert Portman (R-OH), the Trump presidency added more to the national debt than the Bush and Obama administrations. The Biden administration isn’t doing any better.
We need to deal with the debt. It’s why I supported Paul Ryan’s attempts to reform entitlement programs. It’s why I supported the Simpson-Bowles commission. It’s why I’ll back any presidential candidate who has the courage to speak the truth: Medicare and Social Security are going bankrupt. In order to save these important programs for my generation and future generations, we must make reforms.
Yet Congressman Good seems to think that all we have to do is cut spending on Ukraine and go after fraudulent spending in Covid relief and, in his words, the “phony infrastructure bill.” It makes me nervous that Good (as well as other members of the HFC) seem both nonchalant about a default yet are also refusing to tackle the major drivers of our debt, which are entitlement programs.
I’m less nervous about McCarthy’s concession that has gotten the most attention. Good and others from the House Freedom Caucus wrangled a change that would make it easier to trigger a no-confidence vote. It’s possible that this “motion to vacate” concession will make the House even more dysfunctional than it already is. But it’s also possible that the concession won’t make a difference. As Yuval Levin argues, “If you oppose a speaker of your own party, you wouldn’t move to call a vote on a motion to vacate unless you thought it would prove that the speaker lacks support. Otherwise, you’d end up demonstrating the speaker’s strength and so doing the opposite of what you want.”
While I’m worried about the prospect of a default and slightly concerned about lowering the threshold for the “motion to vacate,” I’m excited about some of the other things in the deal. First, there is the requirement for a 72-hour period for members to read legislation before they have to vote on it. There is also the prospect for narrower spending bills, shaped by committees. Then there is the prospect of returning to “regular order,” in which rank and file members of Congress could once again amend legislation on the House floor.
Today’s congress is increasingly filled with politicians who care more about performing on television and social media than writing legislation. As Karen Tumulty argues in The Washington Post, “The nature of today’s media has changed the culture of the House. Individual members can fast-track their way to celebrity — and raise campaign cash — not by putting their heads down, climbing the seniority ladder and building respect through their committee work, but by doing and saying outrageous things on social media and partisan cable channels.” Yuval Levin lays it out even better in the pages of Commentary: “Members of Congress remain intensely ambitious. But their ambition is for a prominent role in the theater of our national politics. They view the institution of Congress as a particularly effective platform for themselves—a way to raise their profile, to become celebrities in the world of cable news or talk radio, whether locally or nationally, to build a bigger social-media following, and in essence to become stars.”
It isn’t just cable television and social media. Another reason for a dysfunctional congress is that, in recent decades, the policy making process has been a closed one in which the speaker is the most powerful. As committees have been cast aside, Congress has opted for huge ominous bills, authored behind close doors, which are brought to the floor for an up-or-down vote.
Consider the recent $1.7-trillion fiscal 2023 spending package. Or think of the 2.2 trillion dollar Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act. This was the largest spending bill the House had ever considered, yet only a handful of people had any input on the legislation. I’m hopeful that McCarthy’s deal might lead to spending bills that originate from the twelve appropriations subcommittees. It’s been nearly 30 years since all twelve appropriation bills were individually passed and signed into law. Adam Chan and Kevin Kosar argue in an essay titled “A Case for Stronger Congressional Committees” that, as policy-making power has flowed upward, the rank-and-file increasingly feel and behave like outsiders.
Apparently, an open amendment process for spending bills is part of the agreement that made McCarthy speaker. If such a process returned to the House chamber, this wouldn’t just empower the House Freedom Caucus. It would allow everyone, whether on the right or the left, to advance their ideas. As recently as the 1990s, more than half the bills that reached the House floor did so under an “open rule.” But leaders in both parties have turned to closed processes. As Tumulty observes, “There are understandable reasons that House leaders of both parties have had to exert more control. When the chamber is closely divided and there is virtually no common ground between Democrats and Republicans, the alternative to legislating by leadership fiat may be getting nothing done at all.” She also points out that many lawmakers prefer it this way because they are able to avoid difficult votes on amendments that could come back to haunt them at election time.
I’m skeptical that a return to an open amendment process will occur, but it would be exciting news if the McCarthy speakership resulted in stronger committees and more amendments on the House floor.
To better understand how Congressional committees have deteriorated over the last few decades, look at the funding. Chan and Koser point out that overall House expenditures have been declining for decades, but party leadership has been largely spared these cuts while committees have born the brunt of them. Committee staff has declined 38.7 percent since 1993, while party leadership staff has increased by 53 percent. Congress has also downsized funding for the Congressional Budget Office and the Congressional Research Service. This matters because both bodies play essential roles in helping legislators do their work at a time when the executive branch has grown in size and scope.
I wish McCarthy’s deal included getting rid of cameras from in the committee rooms. I’m a fan of having reporters there to take notes and report on what’s happening, but it is very hard to negotiate and bargain when there are cameras around. The Founders would have never succeeded in designing the constitution at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787 had everything been recorded and live-streamed to the entire nation. During the speaker nomination fight, C-SPAN filmed an argument between Matt Gaetz and McCarthy. D.C. types called it a bowl game for Beltway news-junkies. But the last thing we need is greater fixation on politics as a spectator sport.
Of course, it’s hard to me to meet with Bob Good and have a chat about these potential reforms, which gets me to my final one: we need to increase the size of the house of representatives. Keith Rothfus, a former member of the House of Representatives, runs through the numbers. Originally, Congress had 65 members to represent a population of 3.9 million (one representative for every 60,000 Americans). In 1850, the U.S. population was 23.2 million and Congress increased the number to 234 (one representative for 99,000). By the 1900, there were 76.2 million Americans and 386 congressmen (one representative for 197,000). In 1929, Congress made the 435 cap permanent, yet the population has continued to swell. Now the average member of Congress represents 709,000 constituents.
Expanding the House of Representatives. Eliminating cameras from the committee rooms. Increasing spending on the CBO and CRS. A bottom-up legislative process
An open amendment process. Will any of this happen?
Certainly not. Still, as someone who believes in the American dream, I like to dream about a more functional House of Representatives.