Last week, the transition of leadership in the Democratic caucus of the House grabbed the spotlight even as control of the House finally flipped. Off stage, we started tracking whether an institutional transition is underway from the current party/leader management structure.
Splinter groups of Republicans in both chambers are dissatisfied with their subordinate positions and could be driving towards a different model of power sharing and deliberation within their conferences, beginning in the next Congress. Similarly, many Democrats — progressive and otherwise — share a similar frustration, if not the same tactics, and we will see in the coming weeks whether their calls for institutional change will be implemented within the caucus.
For our part, today we’re publicly releasing a report containing recommendations for House Democrats to update their caucus rules. Most of these recommendations are common-sense, heck, if you like this newsletter you’ll like most of the ideas, although somehow leadership has managed to overlook some of our prior efforts to nudge things in a better direction. House Democrats are expected to vote in a week on their caucus rules, with draft amendments due by the end of this week.
We also published a list of House rules adopted in the 116th and 117th Congresses that should continue on to the 118th. The Freedom Caucus has talked about reverting the House rules to before Democratic control, which would be a mistake in many instances. It would also be a political blunder. We’ll soon be releasing a comprehensive list of what Republicans should include in their chamber rules.
Sorry, friends, but you know we love the rules stuff. In fact, we’ve put together this wiki page that has all the caucus and conference rules we could find plus the text of the 24 proposed amendments to the 118th Republican conference rules. (Confidential to Sen. Schumer: it’s time for Senate Dems to publish their caucus rules.) ICYMI, FreedomWorks hosted this excellent event last Monday with many of the leading lights in the effort to decentralize power in the Republican party — we loved the statement that there are now three parties in the House: Democrats, Republicans, and Freedom Caucus. And I enjoyed serving as a panelist for the Lincoln Network’s look at modernizing the House on Thursday, which, alas, was not recorded.
Some of why we’re optimistic about the potential for a Congress that shares power more widely was on display last week in several committee hearing rooms, where members demonstrated mutual respect and an interest in understanding complex issues collaboratively at hearings before the Rules Committee and the House Modernization Committee.
THIS WEEK Congress takes a week-long break for Thanksgiving, with a few hearings scheduled.
Oh, and the number of Members of Congress on Mastodon has grown by 300%, to 3. If your boss/committee/office is setting up an account, please let me know.
The House Freedom Caucus has honed in on the goal of shared power in the chamber as a way to empower far-right members of the Republican conference in the legislative process. With significant political leverage because of the tiny GOP majority, they opened the negotiation process last week during conference meetings. Rank-and-file members entered with 24 proposed amendments. Those that could be voted on by voice vote were considered. More contested ideas will receive roll call votes after Thanksgiving.
The biggest swings (thus far) at power-sharing failed: Rep. Scott Perry’s proposal to allow committees to elect their own chairs and Rep. Bob Good’s amendment to require all appropriations bills to be considered as stand-alone measures. The conference also will not revive the rule allowing single members to issue a motion to vacate the chair, requiring a majority of the conference to support such a motion (and disempowering Democratic efforts). But an amendment from Rep. Gary Palmer prohibiting a bill from being considered under the suspension of rules if it cost more than $100 million dollars succeeded – and actually was amended down from his proposed $250 million.
Right now, the way hard-right Republicans are talking about rules reform is more interesting than the initial results. First, as mentioned above, some of them are thinking of the Freedom Caucus as a third party in a coalition government with Republicans. Second, they want to be able to bring their ideas to the floor and have a vote, and they understand that it’s the structures that the rules create that prevent that from happening.
We think that’s an important way to think about reforming Congress — facilitating fluid factions within the parties that can collaborate with one another. Republicans’ experiences should inform the factions within the Democratic party who similarly have been frozen out of legislative processes in the pursuit of the elusive goal of consensus, which is another word for leadership control. When you see the news stories about Democrats in array, that is, in significant part, alignment under the leadership of the incoming Second Triumvirate. The HFC is trying to establish a new baseline, a lesson in using procedural power that Dems could learn from.
Conservatives also are self-identifying in interesting ways as they discuss their role in the next Congress, perhaps signaling the beginning of a shift in the partisan tectonics under the institution. The election results reinforce a perception that it’s the HFC and their allies that truly represent the MAGA constituency. Districts that had the greatest shift toward Republicans in the midterms were ones where Donald Trump won by more than 10 percentage points in 2020. If this largely rural and exurban block positions itself as a veto over the two major parties, draws more deeply from xenophobia and White Christian Nationalism, or sticks with the Trump political project until the bitter end (or all of the above), maybe the GOP fractures and allows the emergence of two or more parties. This wouldn’t be a bad thing. Our political institutions as currently constituted are not designed to accommodate such a development well — i.e., multiparty government — and you’d need to see changes to both a few House rules and ultimately multi-member districts for it to become sustainable. It has happened elsewhere to great benefit of the populace.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s big announcement last week turned out to be a line change in Democratic leadership, as she and Reps. Steny Hoyer and Jim Clyburn announced they were moving aside for Reps. Hakeem Jeffries, Katherine Clark, and Pete Aguilar. The first female floor leader and Speaker of the House will pass the torch to the first African American to lead a party in Congress. Clyburn, himself a trailblazer in as minority and majority whip, will drop down to the number four leadership position while Hoyer will serve in an advisory capacity. Potentially, the First Triumvirate may stay in office through the end of their terms in the 118th if only to keep the margin of Republican control slim, although that’s an iffy proposition.
In terms of personal perspective and leadership style, of course the transition from Pelosi to Jeffries is enormously consequential. This is an anointing, however, of a member who has risen up the ranks by adopting the Pelosi playbook of punching left to avoid the appearance of conflict in the caucus and raising campaign funds from controversial sources. His big break came in 2018, when he defeated Rep. Barbara Lee for chair of the House Democratic Caucus to succeed Rep. Joe Crowley after his primary loss to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Crowley worked behind the scenes for Jeffries to secure him the six-vote margin of victory. Jeffries has raked in campaign donations from hedge funds, investment banks, and even News Corp’s PAC. In 2021, he started a PAC with Rep. Josh Gottheimer to bolster incumbent Democrats against primaries from the left.
We’re thinking about this transition over the longer term. If Jeffries eventually secures the Speaker’s gavel, his record indicates he’ll be following a similar leadership strategy as his predecessor. House rules accommodate this strategy and reflect the conventional political wisdom of Democratic leadership: that electoral gains are made through persuading moderate voters, not by attracting new ones, and the partisan war of attrition requires ever-escalating campaign finance returns. Internally, it looks like most members wouldn’t have a real say in legislation moving through the House, with power being pulled up to the top. However, if House rules change to return some power back to members, something that Members would need to insist on now, Jeffries may have to accommodate some of the voices he’s been working to tamp down both now and in the future.The man who would be Speaker, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, meanwhile, survived to live another day by clearing a conference vote without too much drama. We’re waiting to see how much he promises to secure the monkey’s paw speakership.
Congress returned for its lame duck session and immediately started on the easy stuff. The House spent day one passing a bunch of naming bills under suspension of the rules. Wednesday, the Senate followed through with a bipartisan deal struck before the election and voted to end debate on the Respect for Marriage Act, allowing 12 Republicans to join all 50 Democrats without political penalty.
Things get harder and more frantic after this off week. Much of the situation is self-inflicted for the majority. Democrats in the Senate now feel a sense of urgency to extend the debt ceiling with House Republicans all but certain to play Russian roulette with it next Congress. Dems are saying they’ve left themselves no time to use reconciliation to pass their own extension and other legislative priorities, which we don’t think is really true: it’s a question of whether they want to work over Christmas. The decision to punt funding the federal government into the middle of the lame duck session, on top of NDAA authorization, essentially means they have to extend the debt limit in a bipartisan fashion, which may empower Senate Republicans to seek concessions and a political helping hand from Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. He has yet to extend it. Of course, Democrats could make a choice to use every last second to get their priorities, from the debt ceiling to the Electoral Count Act, some anti-trust to Supreme Court ethics, but will they?
The dynamics of the remaining appropriations are weird. The top two ranking appropriators in the Senate are retiring and certainly don’t want to leave on a low note. Pelosi will want to minimize the amount of political heavy lifting for her successors on issues like Ukraine and pandemic relief. But a lot of the conflict within the Republican Party right after their midterm misfire seems to be around the idea of compromise itself. Senator Rick Scott’s charge of the Light Brigade against Mitch McConnell for Leader was largely about McConnell and a handful of senators making major bipartisan deals that advance the interests of their backers. House Freedom Caucus members feel similarly. There’s going to be a lot of virtue signaling during appropriations debate between anti-New Deal Republicans in the House and Senate about the direction of the next Congress, especially since only negative agenda setting is possible in the Senate. But Congress still needs to govern, and fast.
Perhaps the risk of political posturing for the next Congress outweighs permissiveness with NDAA authorization amendments that often give members an avenue to tack on their priorities. Sen. Tim Kaine is complaining already that his repeal of the 2002 AUMF in Iraq might not be included for the second year in a row. If so, this would be a real missed opportunity.
Two committee meetings stood out this past week as models for how Congress should work.
Last Wednesday, the House Rules Committee took up the question of how to seat a delegate from the Cherokee Nation, which the 1836 Treaty of New Echota promised but Congress never delivered. Although, as the delegate-designee Kimberly Teehee noted, the language of the treaty is straightforward, issues surrounding seating her are complicated. Members of both parties engaged in a productive and thoughtful question and answer session, and at the end Reps. Jim McGovern and Tom Cole shook hands on their desire to find a solution, through the new House rules package, legislatively, or both. If you have some time, it’s a great conversation around what it means to be a Member of Congress, the nature of domestic nations, and American history.
On Thursday, the House Committee on the Modernization of Congress voted on its last set of recommendations, reaching 202 in total, and concluding its remarkable four years of work. Over the last two Congresses, the committee has been a model of productivity and collaboration and has helped to move, in coordination with other committees of jurisdiction, a number of proposals into practice. As a result, members seem to really enjoy working together on it. One of its final recommendations was to continue the work as a subcommittee of CHA, with Chair Derek Kilmer and Co-Chair William Timmons expressing interest in continuing to work together. We hope to see a House Admin select committee on Modernization be established in the 118th.
ODDS AND ENDS
The unethical Supreme Court. You shouldn’t be surprised by a covert effort from well-financed abortion opponents to personally influence the Supreme Court, because that’s exactly what happened. At least $30 million was dropped to get advocates close to the justices, and the absence of disclosure rules and ethics requirements let this all to fly under the radar. We only know because one of the conductors of the influence operation had a change of heart. It could happen on any issue. There’s pending legislation in both chambers, the Supreme Court Ethics, Recusal and Transparency Act (S. 4188, H.R. 7647), that was favorably reported by the House Judiciary Committee and was the subject of a Senate subcommittee hearing. It has broad civil society support and would make judicial recusal, travel, gift and amicus filing rules more exacting; require real adjudication of recusal motions; and require a SCOTUS ethics code. Maybe the House should put the legislation on the floor… as should the Senate… right now?
Unions. Rep. Chuy Garcia’s team voted 11-0 to form their union, and staff from Reps. Tlaib, Takano, and Pocan filed petitions to form unions. Congratulations.
Diversity matters. The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies at George Washington University renewed its focus on Hill diversity by launching a new resource website to guide Congressional offices on diversity, equity, and inclusion issues. It also boasts an impressive House and Senate hiring tracker that displays visually how well offices represent the demographic composition of their states and districts.
Relatedly, Leader Hoyer’s office announced updates to Democrats’ resume bank website last week, including a feature that allows candidates to receive recommendations from major caucuses.
Cashout. It’s revolving door season for departing members.
Clearance. The Senate may reduce some of the more onerous parts of the security clearance process in the Intelligence Authorization Act.
Clearance. Would the very tall Senator-elect John Fetterman fit in the basement of Capitol Hill Books? They’ve done the math.
Casework. The POPVOX Foundation hosts a webinar on the future of congressional casework December 9 at 1PM ET. Register here.
Need a new professional headshot? The House Office of Diversity and Inclusion is hosting a photo session for Hill staff as part of its new LinkedIn Recruiter pilot program from 10 AM to 2 PM on December 9. RSVP here
The next Congressional Data Task Force meeting will be December 13 from 2:00-4:00 PM online. No registration is available yet.