Members of the newly elected U.S. House of Representatives took their seats on January 3, but the chamber has faced the greatest difficulty in selecting a Speaker in over a century. The House majority party has traditionally been eager to delegate power over the chamber to its leader as a means of facilitating the passage of legislation. But, with Democrats controlling the Senate, a critical group of House conservatives fears that the arrangement may simply be used to facilitate legislative dealmaking behind their backs.

The House majority party’s historical willingness to centralize control of the chamber in its leadership owes much to Speaker Thomas Brackett Reed (R-ME), who in the 1880s sought to “facilitate the orderly conduct of business” by restricting the ability of individual members to amend, impede, or delay legislation designed by the majority party. Reed argued: “The best system is to have one party govern and the other party watch; and on general principles I think it would be better for us to govern and for the Democrats to watch.”

Democrats fumed then, but they quickly embraced Reed’s institutional arrangement when they took over the chamber. The majority party would select a Speaker, who would appoint loyal allies to control key committees, which would report bills advancing party preferences—with little scope for amendment allowed on the floor.

Delegating control over the legislative agenda to the Speaker and his appointees allows the majority party to block popular proposals that it disfavors from being considered, without even having to vote against them. It also allows them to bundle legislative provisions together to force the acceptance of unpopular proposals as part of a package deal with popular ones.

Political scientists have argued that House majority parties will typically centralize power to take advantage of this dynamic—a perspective known as “procedural cartel theory.” And the experience of the past 140 years has tended to support this view: congressmen well-placed in the hierarchy of the House majority party have enjoyed lots of power, and legislation has rarely passed against the wishes of its members.

For 83 of the past 100 years, though, the party controlling the House has also had a Senate majority—but not this year, when the House will be controlled by a Republican majority and the Senate by a Democratic one. That mitigates the appeal of centralizing power, which has made it difficult for Kevin McCarthy to command the deference of rank-and-file House Republicans in the 118th Congress, as it did for John Boehner in a similar situation during the 112th (2012–13).

In the current situation, delegating legislative power to the Speaker would do little to allow House Republicans to get conservative bills through the Senate into law. On the contrary, backbench conservatives fear that it could be used to force them to accept compromises negotiated by a Republican Speaker with Senate Democratic leaders.

Over recent years, the conservative wing of the GOP has been distinguished by a belief that the party’s beltway leaders have been overly eager to make concessions and deals with Democrats, and the fear of future betrayal looms over the contest for the Speakership. Only last month, Congress enacted a $1.7 trillion omnibus appropriations bill, after rank-and-file legislators were presented with a 4,155-page bill just days before the government was due to shut down, without the chance to offer amendments.

House Republicans are right to insist on having someone they trust in leadership, and they may wish to amend chamber rules to prevent appropriations agreements from being foisted on them at the last minute in up-or-down omnibus bills. McCarthy has sought to reassure conservatives with an upfront commitment to limit expenditures.

But the recent appropriations package is a testament to the institutional power enjoyed by the outgoing House Democratic majority. Republicans will surely extract better bargains from the Democratic Senate if they can capture the House committee structure and put it in service of their own purposes.

Nor is it simply the case that the absence of legislation is the best that conservatives can hope for. Various elements of the Trump tax cuts are set to expire. Unless these are reauthorized by the upcoming Congress, Democrats might simply pocket a revenue windfall—and set about making promises to spend it.

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images


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