“The House works best when it is allowed to work its will.”So declared John Boehner as he assumed the speakership of the House yesterday. “There is no telling what together we can accomplish,” Boehner told his colleagues. He outlined new House rules, predicting that they would “restore the House of Representatives as a place where the people’s will is done.”
It was a good speech, as my colleague John Dickerson notes. But Boehner’s rules won’t help the House do the people’s will. They won’t help it accomplish anything else, either. They’ll gum up the works. Which is bad news if you’re a Republican activist. But it’s good news if you’re an old-fashioned conservative.
Boehner promised more “oversight” from House committees, which everyone understands to be code for bogging down the Obama administration in hearings, investigations, and congressional red tape. But he also promised changes that will bog down the House. Bills must be posted for three days before a vote. Amendments will be widely permitted and debated. Spending must be paid for, in accounting terms, on the spot.
“We will dispense with the conventional wisdom that bigger bills are always better; that fast legislating is good legislating; that allowing additional amendments and open debate makes the legislative process ‘less efficient’ than our forefathers intended,” said Boehner. Four times in his short speech, he pledged to entertain robust “debate.”
That’s an odd thing to promise if you’re trying to accomplish things. Debate doesn’t facilitate legislation. It slows it down. Look at the Senate, where Republicans spent the last two years trying to tie up every Democratic proposal in endless debate. To get anything done, Democrats had to cut off debate and force votes. And what was the GOP’s chief weapon in these debates? Amendments. The more amendments you offer, the more you complicate each issue. Amendments peel away votes from the majority, fracture the chamber, and increase the odds of gridlock.
So Boehner’s rules don’t fit his rhetoric about doing the people’s will. But if you’re an old-fashioned conservative, that’s fine. In fact, it’s terrific. You just watched a political party spend two years enacting what it saw as the people’s will. And you probably hated it. To a traditional conservative, legislation seldom expresses the people’s will. More often, it distorts the people’s will to justify a rash agenda. The House works best when it’s not allowed to work its will.
This is the philosophy Boehner captured in his criticism of efficiency and fast legislating. When people are unhappy, as they are in this recession, there’s tremendous pressure on politicians to do something. Sometimes what they do helps. But sometimes it makes things worse. A Republican activist looks at the last two years and thinks, “What a mess. A Democratic spending spree and a health-care monstrosity. Let’s move fast and undo their mistakes.” A conservative looks at the last decade and thinks, “What a mess. An unnecessary war, a Republican spending spree, a Democratic spending spree, and a health-care monstrosity. Let’s slow down before we make another mistake.”
In his speech, Boehner asserted that last November, “the people voted to end business as usual” in Washington. Maybe so, but Boehner’s rules would go further. They would end business altogether. That’s why I doubt he’ll stick with them. But for the country’s sake, I hope he does.