In a letter addressed to her Democratic colleagues and members-elect over Thanksgiving weekend, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi gushed over the “important reforms” the Democratic majority would make in its rules package for the 116th Congress. Among these captivating new changes, she wrote, the package would “establish a select committee to improve the operation of Congress, ensuring that we deliver in a manner that is transparent, bipartisan and unifying.”
Establishing a committee to further investigate a topic of concern, however, is a congressional leader’s way of telling a particular bloc of members that have been seeking specific concrete action, “No, you will not be getting that.”
In this case, the group Pelosi was saying “no” to was the Democratic membership of the House Problem Solvers Caucus, a bipartisan, moderate caucus affiliated with the centrist political advocacy group No Labels. A group of nine of the caucus’ Democratic members, as well as some members-elect, has been threatening to withhold its votes for Pelosi for speaker on the House floor in January unless she agrees to a series of a rules change that, in their words, would “allow for more transparency and bipartisan governing.”*
What they really want is a loosening of congressional leadership’s total control over what legislation reaches the floor. Leadership, naturally, is resisting this.
This consolidation of power away from members and in the hands of leadership has reached soaring new vistas in recent years of Republican control. Under Speaker Paul Ryan, few bills were open to amendments, and legislation that had the numbers to pass the House—bipartisan compromises protecting Dreamers from deportation, for example—would be blocked from consideration if they had more Democratic than Republican supporters. The Problem Solvers essentially want to rewrite the rules so that legislation enjoying bipartisan support can’t be ignored. Some of their most aggressive proposals are being met with resistance from leadership, who don’t want their power weakened, and progressives, who don’t want centrists running the show.
“Many of us have been incredibly frustrated [that] we couldn’t get things to the floor, just for a debate or a vote,” New Jersey Rep. Josh Gottheimer, the Democratic co-chair of the Problem Solvers’ Caucus, told me on Monday. Gottheimer says the group wants the House to be able to pass measures on health care, immigration, and infrastructure that would have the bipartisan backing “to get through the Senate and the White House.”
The Problem Solvers released their series of proposed rules reforms, titled “Break the Gridlock,” over the summer and are now seeking to use their leverage over Pelosi’s speakership to institute them. Several of the group’s dozen proposals already have been incorporated into the draft rules package that incoming Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern is negotiating in coordination with Pelosi, though nothing is final yet.
Least surprisingly, Pelosi and McGovern have agreed to make it more difficult for a small group of members to overthrow the speaker using a “motion to vacate the chair.” And per a senior Democratic aide, Pelosi and McGovern have also agreed to establish a rule that will allow a floor vote on any bill that has two-thirds of the House as co-sponsors, and to require a three-day notice for any committee markup. They have also offered additional changes not specifically requested in “Break the Gridlock.”
These are mostly transparency issues, though, that have been given the go-ahead, and if something dangerous is close to getting 290 co-sponsors, Pelosi could just whip against it. It’s the proposals that would noticeably weaken leadership’s control that have earned the “let’s have a committee figure it out” treatment.
The one that seems to be a total non-starter for Pelosi is a proposal that any legislation considered under a closed rule—i.e., legislation that can’t be amended on the floor—require a 60-percent majority for passage. The idea here is to force more bipartisan legislation, but more likely it would just drag out debates on most pieces of legislation and bring the body to a crawl.
That item didn’t make the latest counteroffer that the nine Democratic members of the Problem Solvers Caucus sent out Monday morning. Instead, the group asked Pelosi to “publicly support” three specific changes in order to win their support. The first one is the two-thirds sponsorship measure that a senior Democratic aide says Pelosi has already agreed to. (Maybe there was some miscommunication there.) The other two are currently thornier.
One of them, which would allow every member to introduce one bill for debate and vote in committees of which they are members, is meeting predictable resistance from committee chairs who don’t like being told what to do.
The other would require that any amendment with 20 Republican and 20 Democratic co-sponsors get a vote when the underlying legislation is considered on the floor. This would weaken leadership’s authority, yes. But sources opposing the measure also argue that it would give corporate lobbies an easy road map toward securing the changes they want, even from a Democratic House: Just have the 20 most corporate-friendly Democrats join up with Republicans to, say, further weaken the Dodd-Frank financial regulatory law, and they’re set.
This touches on one of the left’s broader criticisms of the Problem Solvers Caucus: that they’re little more than a front for corporate America. Many of the Democratic members pushing for these changes were supported in their campaigns by the No Labels PAC, which drew large-dollar contributions from a small group of wealthy donors often from the financial sector. The No Labels PAC supported Gottheimer, himself, in the closing weeks of the campaign, and the securities and investment industry donated nearly $1 million to his campaign.
“I don’t really know what they mean by that,” Gottheimer, who had also heard this criticism of the “20-20” idea, said. “What’s being implied there is that, what, members of Congress are in the pockets of folks?” He was incredulous at the very idea.
“There’s lots of people who are out there who get support of business,” he continued. “I personally don’t think that because business supports an idea that that’s bad.” The notion that the Problem Solvers’ financial supporters might be affecting their effort, he said, “has a lot of ludicrous implications about peoples’ integrity.”
Another major criticism of the Problem Solvers’ proposed changes, coming from both liberal commentators and fellow Democratic representatives, is that they amount to a sort of unilateral disarmament. Republican leadership ran a partisan House of Representatives for eight years, and now, the minute Democrats get control, some of them want to dilute the strength of Democratic leadership and link legislative arms with Republican moderates instead? Gottheimer, who represents an R+3 district and will be a major Republican target once again in 2020, argues that those who would oppose such a power-sharing approach are merely obstructionists.
“I’m not in the ‘obstruct-no-matter-what’ camp,” Gottheimer said. “I’m part of the ‘get-stuff-done’ [camp]. I get that there might be two different feelings on this.”
A number of congressional staffers I’ve asked about the Problem Solvers expect them to support Pelosi in the end, with an exception or two. They’ve already extracted enough concrete changes to declare victory, if they choose, even if they’re not the changes that would meaningfully trim leadership’s power. But at least they would have that select committee to figure out the rest.
Correction, Nov. 28, 2018: This piece originally misstated that 14 Problem Solvers Caucus members were withholding their votes a few weeks ago. It was nine Caucus members, as well as several members-elect.
Support our independent journalism
Readers like you make our work possible. Help us continue to provide the reporting, commentary, and criticism you won’t find anywhere else.Join Slate Plus