All is not well in Washington, clearly. Over three days of voting, Republican Kevin McCarthy has already lost 11 elections for speaker of the House. The 118th Congress still hasn’t sworn in its new members. With 20 entrenched defectors, Republicans have had a hard time this week finding enough votes to even vote to stop voting.
But amid the insanity—and the Democratic glee at the Republican dysfunction—a very real problem with the concentration of power in Congress has surfaced, and the McCarthy holdouts have pushed for some changes that could hypothetically lead to some actual improvements in governance within the chamber.
Put another way, though McCarthy’s defectors are plenty pointlessly disruptive, they are pushing for a few things that count as actual solutions. In theory, those proposals could even benefit progressive Democrats.
The past 30 years have seen an extreme consolidation of power inside the House by members of leadership on both sides of the aisle, a trend which began in earnest when Republican Speaker Newt Gingrich tossed aside committee norms to elevate loyalists and hardliners in the mid-1990s.
Majority and minority leaders now enjoy exorbitant control over rulemaking and the legislative and appropriative processes. Non-leadership members of both parties, meanwhile, have become historically disempowered, warm bodies expected to show up and vote the party line. Bills rarely come through committee, and as a result, see little input from all but the most senior members. This concentration at the top was something outgoing Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has often been referred to as the most powerful House speaker in modern history, used to her full advantage.
Part of what the arch-right House Freedom Caucus and its 20-odd McCarthy opponents say they want is a reversal of this trend. The group is pushing for a decentralization of the “awesome power” of the speaker, as Pelosi once put it, and an equivalent empowerment of factions within the chamber. As Oklahoma congressman-elect and McCarthy opponent Josh Brecheen said, he wants to end “consolidation of power in the hands of the few at the expense of the many constituents of the 435 members of Congress.”
In an Instagram stream Wednesday, Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez made a similar point: “I’m not gonna lie, some of the points that are made—I mean a lot of them are bad, most of them are bad—but some of them, there is actually some common ground on. Like for example, democratizing the rules of the House and kind of breaking up that concentration of power that is so focused in a handful of leaders in both parties.”
To be clear, the Freedom Caucus isn’t selflessly pursuing this change out of an abiding commitment to democratizing the chamber. The reforms they want would benefit them personally in their attempt to build influence in the House and, lest we forget, more than a few of their members voted to overturn the 2020 election. But they do have a point that power is too concentrated in the chamber. McCarthy, who has long pined for the all-powerful position of speaker, wants little to do with this kind of reform.
“People are mistaking dislike of the HFC for a dislike of the process,” said Daniel Schuman, policy director at Demand Progress, a progressive policy group, referring to the House Freedom Caucus.
“What’s going on is not chaos. It’s democracy at work and it’s fine,” he said. “The HFC has rightly identified that the fight over speaker, rules, personnel, and process determine policy. All the factions in the chamber should be looking to do this.”
The current configuration of influence is as historically anomalous as the contested speaker vote. As many have noted, this is the first time since 1923 that a speaker’s election has had to go to multiple ballots. But the dustup may have more in common with a 1910 revolt against House Speaker Joseph Cannon, a conservative Republican who was known at the time for using the inordinate power of the speakership to suppress progressive votes within his own party. After a series of votes, progressive Republicans and Democrats teamed up to permanently limit the power of his position. The result—the removal of the speaker as the chairman of the Rules Committee, and the expansion of that committee’s membership from five to 15—ushered in an era in which the speaker had limited power, one that effectively remained in place until Gingrich’s tenure.
The House Freedom Caucus is undeniably a strange group of emissaries for reforms that would break up concentrations of power in Congress. Troubling, too, are the ambitions driving their desire for said reforms, which range from sowing chaos in the chamber to forcing a default on the national debt.
But the reforms they’re pushing that could have a positive impact on overall governance include placing more members unaffiliated with the speaker onto the House Republican Steering Committee, which makes critical decisions on committee assignments, and empowering the entire conference to pick who sits on the powerful Rules Committee, rather than leaving it up to the speaker. These changes would meaningfully shift how Congress operates. They would be major wins for rank-and-file members.
Meanwhile, empowerment of committees in the legislative process, and a proposed opening up of the amendment process, would be advantageous for the left flank of the Democratic Party. Progressives make up almost half of the Democratic caucus, and the Progressive Caucus is the largest in the party. But progressives have long been shut out of leadership, and underrepresented on the most consequential committees, too.
Pelosi, like Republican Speaker Paul Ryan before her, maintained an iron grip on election fundraising, committee appointments, the Rules Committee, and decisions over what bills are brought to the floor. The Democrats’ new leader, Hakeem Jeffries, who is very much a Pelosi understudy, would likely prefer to continue in her modus operandi, too. But even moderate Democrats have professed an interest in returning to that bygone era where membership is more empowered. Retiring Democrats have told the press they would like to see a return to “regular order,” which would empower committees and require bills to go through markups.
Right now, that looks a long way off. Democrats are in the minority and are arguably over-unified in their support of their new leadership group (which is, of course, extremely similar to the old group). It’s possible, too, that the Freedom Caucus will overplay its hand in these deliberations and end up with nothing.
But while the ultra-MAGA caucus causes problems for mainstream Republicans, they are pointing a way for progressives to become more empowered both during this chaotic legislative session and whenever Democrats win the gavel back.