by Greg Ganske
January 25, 2023
As a past Republican Member of Congress I watched the battle for the Speakership of the House of Representatives with both dismay and admiration: dismay over the optics of chaos and failure to get the issues of the conservative holdouts ironed out prior to Jan. 6, admiration of the tenacity of both Speaker McCarthy and the dissidents with whom I shared many concerns.
I am sympathetic to the desire for change in the autocracy of the Speakership.
The Speakerships under Nancy Pelosi and to some extent GOP Speaker Hastert whom I served under were almost as autocratic as Speaker Joe Cannon’s back in 1910. A revolt against Speaker Cannon’s tight control of the Rules Committee and committee chairmanships culminated in one of the great House power struggles. . . and his ouster. Today I applaud Speaker McCarthy for adjusting to concerns and agreeing to conservatives’ Rules changes to help make the House function in a more democratic way.
Speaker Hastert imposed the “Hastert Rule” which meant requiring a majority support of the Republican Conference before allowing committee legislation to proceed to the Rules Committee and the floor of the House. I and others had to directly challenge our own leadership and bring discharge petitions to overrule the Speaker in order to bring Patients’ Bill of Rights and Campaign Finance Reform to the floor for a vote. House and Senate bills still had to pass identically with no amendments or get buried in conference committees.
So what are some of these changes McCarthy agreed to?
Most difficult for him was to agree with a single member being able to call for a vote to oust the Speaker. However, this is nothing new. It is a return to the traditional rule before Speaker Pelosi did away with it. Votes on term limits and border security have been taken before. Requiring 72 hours to read bills before they go to floor is not revolutionary nor is a ban on earmarks and proxy voting. The entire GOP conference supports a select committee on whether the DOJ has been weaponized.
McCarthy’s most significant concessions deal with the composition of the Rules Committee and fiscal policy. The Rules Committee has been nothing more than a rubber stamp for the Speaker. The new agreement is that the conference chooses some members not committed to only voting as the Speaker directs. Process issues may seem mundane but are really important for how the House functions. The Rules Committee sets the terms of debate. With more representation both moderates and conservatives will be able to get more controversial amendments approved for debate.
There will be a harder line on increasing the national debt and spending. The concessions McCarthy agreed to will enable a return to “Regular Order” which refers to the strict application of committee and subcommittee processes, including public hearing opportunities and the holding of multiple votes. This is particularly important for the three major committees of Appropriations, Ways and Means, and Energy and Commerce. Committee Chairs working with minority ranking members should hold oversight hearings and be guided by, but not dictated to, by the Speaker as has become the norm.
Congress hasn’t followed its own budget process in twenty years.The authorization and appropriations process has become so difficult that the Speakers of both parties take no action until the last minute. They then combine all 12 appropriations bills into a single “Omnibus” bill of thousands of indecipherable pages. Failing that they fall back on “Continuing Resolutions” (CR’s) which simply raise spending for inflation and abrogate Congressional oversight. In the meantime, individual members’ chances of contributing is lost. Members then fill their time dialing for political donations. No wonder many members are fed up with their roles.
The new rules make it harder for the House to tax and spend by imposing a “cut-go” rule that requires any mandatory spending increase be offset with equal or greater mandatory spending cuts. A three-fifths super majority will be required for tax increases. These are similar to rules in 1995 through 2002 when the GOP Congress actually paid down national debt.
The GOP House rebels have done both Republicans and Democrats, and the country, a service if the new Rules result in a return to “Regular Order.” , The members must act responsibly. They can’t hold Speaker McCarthy hostage to every individual’s whim.. It is in everyone’s interest for the House of Representatives to work through regular processes that ensure more imput from rank and file members of both parties.
We might even see more bipartisanship.
Greg Ganske, Md, is a retired surgeon and was a Member of Congress representing Iowa from 1995-2002