The Democratic House Wants to Reform Democracy. It’s Not a Panacea — But It’s a Start.
The new Democratic majority House gaveled in on Thursday with reform on its agenda — not so much of policy but of democracy itself. Admirably, the majority aims both to repair House rules and to improve the functioning of democratic institutions more broadly. Given the coarsening discourse and widening polarization, the challenge is immense.
House Democrats will release H.R. 1 on Friday, and it will be a sprawling package — addressing campaign financing, voting rights, election cybersecurity and more. The bill reportedly will mandate that political action committees report their donors. It would mend the big hole that the Supreme Court ripped in the Voting Rights Act, which had guaranteed access to the voting booth to generations of minority Americans. It would help states replace old election equipment, curb extreme partisan gerrymandering and encourage small-dollar campaign donations.
Meanwhile, Democrats will make changes to the House itself. New rules will bar members from serving on corporate boards, after Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.) stained the House by serving on the board of a biotechnology company and drumming up business among fellow members of Congress with power over health-care policy.
The new majority will reempower the District’s congressional delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), to vote on floor amendments. The rules also ban members indicted on certain felony charges from holding leadership positions, restrict sexual relationships between lawmakers and staff, and empanel a committee to examine climate change.
Other reforms were promoted by the bipartisan House Problem Solvers Caucus, which conditioned its support of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on her support for some changes. She agreed to ease consideration of bipartisan amendments, create a “consensus calendar” to reserve time for bills with wide bipartisan support and make it harder for extremists on the House’s wings to threaten to oust the speaker. The hoped-for effect will be to promote legislation through compromise and limit the kind of showboating that blocked achievement during the recent Republican rule.
The problem-solvers and their backers at centrist advocacy group No Labels took left-wing heat for facing down Ms. Pelosi. Similarly, Rep. Tom Reed (N.Y.), a Republican problem-solver, faced backlash from his party after he pledged to vote for the Democratic rules package. Yet both Democrats and Republicans in the Problem Solvers Caucus had long ago — before they knew which party would be in the majority — pledged to press the next speaker-to-be for reforms that might tamp down partisanship. Neither side should have been surprised, let alone upset.
None of this is a panacea. H.R. 1 will be dead on arrival in Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) Senate. Many of the House rule changes are incremental, leaving mostly untouched the power of leaders to ignore the middle of the chamber if they so please. But all are worthwhile first steps — toward persuading the Senate to accept some of the House’s ideas, tightening ethics standards and encouraging bipartisan groups to exert more pressure when House leaders suppress majority bills. Especially measured against the last House’s early drive to destroy Obamacare and recklessly cut taxes, this is a welcome beginning.