Ideas. Action. Results.

The Goal is Workable Bipartisanship

By Joshua Ferrer

Monday, August 6, 2018

Many realities contribute to Congress’ inability to get things done, and significant among them is certainly a lack of bipartisanship. History shows legislation is more effective and longer lasting when both parties contribute to its creation. However, recent efforts to force bipartisanship on one of the most partisan actions the House and Senate must do at the outset of each Congress—electing the chambers’ leaders—are misguided.

Some congressional reform advocates have recently proposed requiring the Speaker of the House and Senate Majority Leader to receive some amount of bipartisan support to be elected to their positions.

While America’s democracy has many characteristics that make it unique among free countries, how we elect our congressional leadership isn’t one of them, and for good reason.  

Increasing the threshold of support for congressional leaders to mandate a minimum number of votes from the minority party is unwise—internationally unprecedented, politically impractical, and procedurally impossible.

No other developed democracy does it this way. Of the seven longest-standing presidential democracies—Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, South Korea, Mexico, and the United States—every single one requires no more than an absolute majority for electing the leaders of its legislative chambers.

Ditto among semi-presidential systems. Austria, Finland, France, Poland, and Portugal all stipulate that congressional leaders achieve a majority to be elected. While less comparable, the same holds true for the dozens of long-standing parliamentary systems, whose basis is majority rule.

The proposal is politically untenable in part because it requires some lawmakers from the minority party to make the perilous decision to support a speaker or Senate leader from the majority. This opens these lawmakers up to retaliation from their peers—being stripped of valuable committee assignments, deprived of campaign funds, or even excluded from the caucus.   

On the other hand, it allows the minority party to hold the leadership position hostage over political demands. Rather than preventing important policy disputes from being resolved, this gridlock could completely prevent the House or Senate from functioning, paralyzing the entire government from carrying out even the most basic of legislative functions.

The proposal for mandating a bipartisan vote for Speaker is also procedurally impossible. After a new House is elected, the first order of business is electing a speaker. This happens before the House’s rules are adopted. Rules from the last Congress don’t carry over to the new one, so there is no rule governing how much support a nominee for speaker must get before they are declared elected.

Rather, by longstanding precedent, the election of Speaker is by a majority of members-elect voting with a quorum present. To somehow alter this precedent in favor of a preset, formulaic, mixed-party supermajority requirement would upend the House’s constitutional right to determine its rules of proceeding every two years.

As with the House, no formal rule governs the selection of the Senate Majority Leader; rather, precedent ensures the party with the most seats is deemed the majority party. Since Senate leadership votes are made by party caucuses, minority caucus members would have to be allowed into the majority party caucus for a bipartisan leadership vote—antithetical to the very purpose of party-based caucuses in the first place.

The Bipartisan Policy Center’s Commission on Political Reform made many recommendations in its 2014 report, Governing in a Polarized America. These reforms will help to re-instill a bipartisan culture without the negative side effects of mandated bipartisanship on the leader votes. For example, the commission recommends that bills should be posted at least three days in advance to give members and the public enough time to read and discuss them. Full-fledged conference committees should be used to ensure greater member participation in the policy process. And the House and Senate majority leadership teams should consent to a more open amendments process that allows for debate and consideration of minority ideas.

While less dramatic than reforming how the Speaker of the House or Majority Leader are elected, these proposals have a realistic chance of being implemented and making an impact. The next Congress is likely to be closely divided, no matter which party controls each chamber. It’s time to find the way back to regular order and working together for the American people.

KEYWORDS: 115TH CONGRESS, COMMISSION ON POLITICAL REFORM, DEMOCRACY, MAJORITY LEADER, SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE