In the battle over whether and when a vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill would take place and whether it would be tied to a vote on President Joe Biden’s broader economic agenda, one fact was overlooked: House Democrats passed their own infrastructure law in July. The reason you haven’t heard much about that measure is that the House agreed to the Senate’s demand to vote on the Senate bill without amendments. With this, the House accepted a bill that not only omitted many progressive priorities, but also had no input from its members.
If the Chamber’s irrelevance in these negotiations was an unusual case, perhaps it is not a cause for concern. But this is how most major laws have been made over the past decade: they are products of the Senate with little or no involvement from the House. This is because the House — whether controlled by Democrats or Republicans — now acts as if it were a unicameral legislature in a parliamentary system, rather than recognizing that it is just one of two legislative chambers in a presidential system. It routinely passes partisan legislation that cannot pass in the Senate because it is too far outside the US ideological center. The result is a House of Representatives that now serves only to block or – in the case of ‘must-pass’ legislation – stamp out Senate bills on important issues. Members of the House have largely given up their power, and thus the power of their voters, to create legislation that addresses our nation’s biggest problems.
This state of affairs is not what the founders intended. Two of the main reasons the drafters of the Constitution created two houses of Congress were to provide Americans with multiple points of entry into the legislative process and to force representatives and senators to deliberate and compromise. They believed that this would not only provide the best laws, but also enhance the legitimacy of these laws, as the many voices in our nation would have the potential to be heard by both their representatives and their senators.
if I wrote in a chapter of Under the Iron Dome, a recently published anthology, members of the House now primarily represent their party and its platform rather than the differing views of their voters. Rule changes have caused members to relinquish much of their individual power and render committees powerless to give their party leaders the ability to legislate in pursuit of the party’s goals. In formulating legislation, party leaders cater to interest groups, activists and donors affiliated with the party to build electoral support. These adherents lean more towards the ideological extremes. Little to no effort is made to get votes from the other party in the legislative process. This may be a reasonable way to legislate in a one-chamber parliamentary system, but the House is only half of one branch in the US legislative process.
The problem with the House legislating in this way is compounded by widespread government divisions, with control of the White House, House and Senate split between the parties. There has been more than 30 of the past 41 years of divided government, or 40 of 41 when we consider that it takes 60 votes in the Senate to overcome a filibuster. During these periods, only two-party laws can become law, and partisan house laws only add to a stalemate. However, sometimes a consensus emerges that legislation should be passed to address a particular problem. As this has happened over the past decade, the necessary bipartisan compromise bill has been written in the Senate and passed by the House without amendment. This happened in October 2013 and January 2018, when Republicans controlled the House and a compromise was needed to end the government shutdown. But it also happens when the House is in democratic hands. In 2019, when there was a humanitarian crisis on the southern border, a bipartisan bill drafted in the Republican Senate became law because the bill passed by the House Democrats failed to pass in the Senate.
When one of the two chambers of Congress does not contribute to legislation on the most important issues facing our country, our democracy is not healthy. It is especially difficult when the weak link is the House, because that chamber had to play a leading role in ensuring the people’s democratic control over the republic. The House has always been considered the stronghold of American democracy.
Can we solve this problem by eliminating the Senate filibuster? Perhaps. But now there is a divided government. And even when Republicans had unified control in 2017 and 2018 and used the budget reconciliation process to evade the filibuster in their efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act and pass major tax cuts, the Senate still largely determined the outcome of both. bills. The Build Back Better reconciliation bill will again test whether the House can leverage the Senate even without the filibuster.
Another option to make the House more effective at legislating and to create the opportunity for more voices to be heard in the legislative process would be to change the House’s rules to re-authorize individual members and committees, allowing more opportunities are offered for bipartisan legislation to take place in the House. The bipartisan House Problem Solvers Caucus, of which I was a member, attempted to do this in 2018, when it approved a package of rule changes. Using our votes in the January 2019 House Speaker election, we were able to bring in a few changes. A new speaker will be elected in the next Congress (assuming Nancy Pelosi keeps her promise to resign or Republicans become the majority), providing another opportunity to drive rule reform. But if nothing changes, ‘het Volkshuis’ will continue to produce more theater than solutions, deserting the people and our democracy.