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Problem Solvers Creating Problems For Pelosi

[ Posted Monday, November 26th, 2018 – 17:47 PST ]

Another challenge has emerged for Nancy Pelosi to deal with, in her bid to become speaker of the House again. The so-called "Problem Solvers Caucus" (which includes nine Democrats) is demanding changes to the House's rules, and they have drawn a metaphorical line in the sand over three provisions they want to force Pelosi to adopt. In other words, the Problem Solvers are creating problems for Pelosi.

The Problem Solvers have already won some minor victories, it should be noted. From their initial list of demands, Pelosi has already adopted several, but the Problem Solvers complain that this is not enough -- they say the ideas Pelosi adopted are minor and that she is punting on the major changes by trying to create a committee to "further study the issue."

So today they released a letter outlining the three major changes they now consider to be crucial. Let's take a look at what they're asking for:

In its statement Monday, the [Problem Solvers Caucus] doubled down on three particular demands: a "debate and timely vote" on any bill that is co-sponsored by three-fifths of House members; a guaranteed debate and vote on any amendment that wins at least 20 Democratic and 20 Republican co-sponsors; and a provision requiring committees to debate and vote on at least one bill from each of its members, provided that the measure is relevant to the panel's jurisdiction and has at least one co-sponsor from the other party.

The first one sounds like the biggest change, but in reality this already exists in slightly different form, so this should be the easiest one for Pelosi to agree to. If sixty percent of the House (261 members) wants a bill voted on, then it sounds reasonable to force the speaker to hold a floor vote on it. As mentioned, though, this already kind of exists in the form of the "discharge petition." A discharge petition is a motion to bring a particular bill to the floor that the speaker has refused to allow a vote on, and it only requires a simple majority to work. If a majority of the House members sign such a petition, then the speaker has to hold the vote, whether she (or he) wants to or not. So giving in to a more-restrictive version of this (three-fifths instead of a simple majority) shouldn't really be that big a deal. It would be proactive rather than reactive, since the three-fifths would have to all have signed on as sponsors to the bill rather than just signing a petition, but in reality it would have a similar effect. Since the discharge petition already essentially exists, Pelosi really wouldn't be giving up any real power by agreeing to this.

The second item on the Problem Solvers list is really a non-starter, though. The bar is simply set too low. Getting 20 members of each party to sponsor legislation may sound like a lot, but please remember the House has 435 members. That's a pretty low bar, when compared to the total. Way too low, in fact -- it is less than ten percent. When a majority (or three-fifths, even) of the House is in favor of a piece of legislation, that implies rather widespread popular support for that legislation. Getting 20 members of the opposition party to cross the aisle, however, isn't all that widespread at all. The bar is set just ridiculously too low.

The third item on the list of demands is a pretty esoteric one. As such, it's harder to see what the impacts of it would be, for better or worse. On the face of it, it doesn't sound all that unreasonable. Members of committees should be able to get their proposals voted on, especially if they've got a cosponsor from the other party. But in reality, House committees can be quite large -- sometimes with dozens of members. Requiring a vote for each and every member might serve to do nothing more than clog up the calendar so effectively that nothing much of substance can get done. Holding test vote after test vote that goes down to fail does nothing more than provide political ammunition for the member that proposed it, in the next election. The campaign ads just write themselves: "I proposed this wonderful idea, and the other party voted against it!"

Politics aside, though, the committee proposal seems unworkable in the larger committees. Perhaps this could be mitigated by some sort of restriction on it, perhaps changing it to a vote on "at least one bill per year" (or even "per session"). If this power was given, but also limited by time, then it couldn't be used just to clog up the committee works. It'd be more like the red challenge flag coaches can now use in football -- they know they've got to use it sparingly, because the use of it is so limited. You don't throw that flag unless it's pretty important, in other words, and it is conceivable this could work the same way in the House committees. But it would be a lessening of the committee chairs' power to run their committees as they see fit.

Perhaps Pelosi could give the Problem Solvers half a loaf. She could agree to the three-fifths rule, since it already kind of exists anyway. She could agree to a much more limited version of the committee rule, that constrained the total number of such votes over time. But she should refuse to give in on the 20/20 idea, because the bar is just too low -- it could easily lead to an exponential amount of gridlock by the minority party. Would this be enough for the Problem Solvers? That remains to be seen.

The Problem Solvers like to style themselves as centrists who just want to get stuff done. They present themselves as fighting partisanship and gridlock. What's left unsaid, however, is the fact that any changes the Democrats agree to would be unilateral and would serve to cede power from the speaker and committee chairs to the minority party for the next two years. Did the Problem Solvers cause such headaches for Paul Ryan or John Boehner? I certainly don't remember them doing so. The rules of the House of Representatives change every two years, at the very beginning of the term of a new Congress. It's the first thing they vote on (which makes sense, because you've got to have the rules in place before anything else happens). Meaning any changes Pelosi agreed to would only last for the next two years. After that, it would be up to the next incoming speaker to totally rewrite the rules, should they so choose. And you can bet that the Republicans will write the rules to their advantage, and the Problem Solvers won't have much say in the matter (they certainly didn't in the last few Congresses).

So all of these rule changes can be seen as Democrats giving in to pre-emptive Republican-supported rules changes, which will serve to empower the minority party for the next two years. This is why Pelosi might just flat-out refuse to compromise even further than she already has. She's tossed them a few bones already, and promised to study the larger changes to see whether they'd work or not. That's already a pretty reasonable stance to take. Or she could choose to give in only on the three-fifths demand (since it already exists in a different form), and refuse to consider the other two at all.

All the posturing by both the Problem Solvers and the other anti-Pelosi rebel Democrats is going to get a lot weaker when Pelosi overwhelmingly wins the vote in the Democratic caucus for speaker (scheduled for Wednesday). Once that happens, the choice will get a lot starker for all of the rebels. Will they simply lodge a protest vote by voting "present" (I explored what this means in detail last week)? Will they vote for a yet-unnamed third candidate for speaker? At the present, no other Democrat has officially challenged Pelosi for the speakership, so this might mean voting for someone who doesn't even want to run for the job. All this would serve to do (if there were enough such votes) is to prolong the voting process -- the House would just hold vote after vote until someone got a majority. Or would Democrats actually vote for a Republican to be speaker right after winning their first majority in the chamber in years? Those are going to be the three choices all the rebels face early next January. It's all fine and good to talk about opposing Pelosi right now, but when the real vote happens in the full House, Democratic rebels will quite likely be faced with the choice of helping to elect a Republican speaker, or helping to elect Nancy Pelosi. In other words, that's the problem the Problem Solvers themselves will likely face.

-- Chris Weigant

 

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2 Comments on “Problem Solvers Creating Problems For Pelosi”

  1. [1] 
    TheStig wrote:

    CW-

    Timely and informative. Automobile repairs seem to inspire your political journalism....maybe it's all that waiting around with literally no place to go.

    At a certain point in a vehicle's life cycle you need to consider not just fixing broken critical systems, but adding redundant ones at the same time: another fuel pump, another water pump, spare hydraulics etc. Aviation style. A variant of this approach (popular in the Northeast USA) is a "beater car." Drive it in the winter, repair it as needed after the snow melts.

  2. [2] 
    ListenWhenYouHear wrote:

    CW

    Great article, once again. Don’t know if you saw it over the long weekend, but Nancy Pelosi finally published an article in WAPO highlighting the contents of the H.R.1 bill that they plan to introduce.

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