Why the current Congress isn’t working for the people — and how Democrats can change that.
Do you miss “Schoolhouse Rock”? Me, too. And there’s no question that many members of the current U.S. House of Representatives, particularly Republicans, could benefit from a re-run, a refresher course on how legislating is actually supposed to work.
During the Netroots Nation conference in Detroit, Congressman Dan Kildee (MI-05) participated on a panel with Rep. Alan Lowenthal (CA-47) and Rep. Mark Takano (CA-41). The title was “A Fresh Perspective: Lessons From a Crazy Congress” and the three representatives shared their take on why Congress is so dysfunctional right now — and what Democrats are doing to drive positive change. They’ve managed to get some things done, but the fundamental problem preventing more forward momentum is this: the game is rigged.
One of Rep. Kildee’s main points was that the American people need to be aware of exactly how the rules are being manipulated to favor the current Republican majority and obstruct progress — and what Democrats are doing to try to restore the balance of power.
After the panel, I sat down for a conversation with Rep. Kildee. Here’s what he had to say, edited only for length and clarity.
You talked during the panel about being forced to play defense more than you play offense. Can you elaborate on what Democrats are doing to move things forward in Congress right now?
For progressives, obviously the big agenda is to take back control, to put ourselves in a position where we can actually pursue an affirmative progressive agenda as opposed to continually having to play defense. That’s obviously the major focus of a lot of our activity. But we have good knowledge that even in the minority in normal times we would have a chance to make policy or contribute to policy — especially with the fact that we have the White House and the Senate — if we had what we refer to as regular order, which is a Washington term for how a bill becomes a law. Just like in “Schoolhouse Rock.”
If we adhered to regular order — if we had a Republican leadership that was willing to even consider the interest of the minority — we could actually do things. We could be in a much stronger position when legislation moves through to adopt important amendments.
As for this House leadership, I don’t think people fully realize how undemocratic Speaker Boehner is. On one hand, he is the weakest Speaker that we’ve ever had; on the other hand that weakness is manifested his lack of will to disappoint his own supporters.
I’m a student of the theory that leadership is the act of disappointing your own supporters at a rate they can absorb. And it’s hard for progressives to deal with that, too, because especially for those who are in the position of legislating we often have to take tough roads that advance our interests one step when we want to go five steps. What Boehner seems unwilling to do is to challenge his own hard right and tell them basically “you’re on your own — go jump in the lake, we’re going to work with the functioning majority.” And that’s manifested with House rules that are unprecedented as to how they prevent our voices from being heard.
That must be incredibly frustrating. I know it’s a concern for the American people. How do we fight back so Congress can start legislating again?
Obviously number one is change the people who are in some of those seats. That’s the easiest answer but the hardest one to achieve. But I think sunshine has a great effect on democracy and that’s why I mention these things, because I just think there needs to be more attention — Republicans should be held accountable for the way they run the House, because they’re shutting out voices that should be heard. We just need to make that case. It’s tough, though, because it’s not interesting, it’s not sexy, it’s not exciting, it seems very inside baseball and they know it. So it makes it that much more difficult.
During your Netroots Nation panel you talked about how House Republican leadership has changed the rules of the game. That seems to be the root of the problem.
It’s the theme really of what’s happening both in terms of inside Congress and overall economic policy. Rules of our economy right now are obviously tilted toward the wealthy, and the rules of our government are tilted toward the interests that represent the wealthy. You can’t just continue to play their game under their rules and take our losses as if they are somehow fair.
I use a very silly analogy: We have this annual Congressional baseball game. Democrats against Republicans. Everybody knows the rules, the umpire calls the balls and strikes the way he sees them. And we beat the Republicans two years in a row 22 to nothing and 15 to six. So if the rules are fair Democrats win. Progressives win if the rules are fair.
Now, if they had their way and if the rules of the House were translated into our cute little 100-year-old Congressional baseball game, every inning the Democrats would start with two outs and the batter would have two strikes, and every inning the Republicans would have the bases loaded and they would get five outs and we couldn’t wear gloves. Honestly, who would win that game? We know who would win that game. They would say they won fair and square. The rules of the economy and the rules of the way our House of Representatives work are rigged.
Can you provide a real-world example of how the deck is stacked in the House? How the rules have been changed?
One that occurs on a daily basis is the way the House Rules Committee moves legislation to the floor. Every piece of legislation comes through its committees and jurisdiction and then before it goes to the floor it goes to the Rules Committee. The Rules Committee is stacked: nine Republicans, five Democrats, and the Republicans are all hand-picked by the Speaker so it’s the Speaker’s committee. They determine the rules of debate and consideration of a bill. This Congress has adopted what’s called a closed rule more than any Congress in the history of the United States: 90% of the bills that come to the floor come with a rule that says no amendments can be offered. So you have these committees that are stacked in Republicans’ favor, that have committee leadership that are among the most ideological, moving bills to the floor through the rules committee and then the rules committee basically says, “Look, we’re taking this bill to the floor the way the committee adopted it” and everybody else, the 435 of us who are sent there to legislate, we don’t get to act as legislators — we have to act almost like jurors in a civil trial we have to say yes or no. We’re not sent there to just say yes or no. The people in my district, when we consider, say, an appropriations bill, there are certain interests that I represent that are unique or at least not universal. Weak markets, older industrial cities that are struggling have needs that might not be reflected in these bills. If I had my opportunity to make my best case and honestly work with people on the other side we might be able to get things done. And on the few occasions where the House has allowed for an open rule we’ve actually been able to do things.
There’s another rule of the House that they changed. There’s long been a rule of the House that allows any member of the House to call up the Senate version of a bill and put it to a vote on the floor of the House. They took that away and assigned that authority to the House Majority Leader, so we just couldn’t do it. Obviously the purpose behind that is to make sure that government continues to work and that if the will of the House in general is being contradicted by the leadership of the House that there’s a safety valve, there’s a way to balance the unchecked power of the Speaker and the Rules Committee.
It’s the thing that’s keeping us from doing things like immigration reform. If the House passed some nutty immigration reform — which in all likelihood anything that this House passes would be — and the House and the Senate have these competing versions, I would be able to go to the floor and call up the Senate version, get it to the floor of the House and vote on it. But you can’t do it.
Speaker Boehner once proudly said their goal is to pass as little legislation as possible. That seems counterintuitive to what democracy is all about.
They’re very cynical, because the way I view it is if they don’t have confidence in the quality of their own ideas they are not about ideas they are about interests. And if they had confidence and quality of their own ideas they’d be more than happy to put everything to a vote. Unemployment insurance benefits extension — let’s vote on it. I introduced the five-month extension in March, it was same language that the Senate had already enacted. Couldn’t get a vote, they’re going on and on that they want to make sure it was paid for and it needs to be bipartisan, so I got four Republicans, I put together four Democrats, so we had this bipartisan extension of unemployment benefits. We tried to call their bluff. They don’t have any interest in moving on it because it doesn’t serve their interests.
It would cost about $10 billion. I asked the head of the bipartisan Congressional Budget Office at a hearing the other day what would be the effect on the economy and on our deficit of extending unemployment benefits and he said it would be a positive effect. Republicans are just not interested. But they’ll come to the floor with closed rules on tax extenders — tax breaks that are unpaid for and it will cost half a trillion dollars — and they voted them in.
Heading into the November elections, a lot of people are wondering how much power the extremists in Congress will have after Rep. Eric Cantor was unseated. Does the Tea Party have as much power as they’d like us to think?
They punched way above their weight and it’s because we have the weakest Speaker in anybody’s recollection. There’s this theory that Speaker Boehner has this uncontrollable caucus and I kind of get that. I mean, some of them are just certifiable. But he doesn’t demonstrate much strength by allowing a minority of his own Congress — who are the least informed people in that Congress, whose interests are in stopping government not improving government — he allows the tail to wag the dog. John Boehner will never ask my advice on how to lead, but if he were to I would say, “Tell them to go jump in a lake, tell them that you will work with the functioning majority of the House.” The kind of policy that could be enacted might not be the stuff that we would write if we were in charge, but we would at least be operating on the assumption that government has a legitimate role in trying to create a fair playing field in our economy.
Now how they do it would be different than how we would do it, but he would be able to count on 150 to 180 Republicans on any given vote that are conservative but that are not insane. There are enough conservative or moderate Democrats, or folks who think that one step forward is better than three steps back, that could be persuaded to participate in the process and contribute to a functioning majority.
The Republicans have paid a heavy price for undermining democracy by drawing Congressional districts that are so far tilted that their members pander to the loudest voices. The American who doesn’t think about politics more than five minutes a week feels completely disconnected to the political process because they see and hear money and voices that are the money and voices of corporations disguised as ideology and it’s really just about interests running our political process. They see the Koch brothers or Sheldon Adelson or Karl Rove spending hundreds of millions of dollars, and the moderate Republican or the moderate Democrat or even the progressive Democrat who spends most of their time trying to figure out how to survive from week to week, what is the impression they have about what their voice means? It creates this sort of defeating sentiment to me. If we don’t deal with the maps, if we don’t deal with the money, we’re not going to get anywhere. That’s the frustration because the sentiment of the American public is far more progressive than the way our system is functioning right now.
As we conclude, what’s your message for Democrats? How do we help drive positive change to make the system fair for everyone?
Convening like this [at Netroots Nation] is a way for people to get together and strategize. We have to be more than just right. We have to be smart and have a plan, a tactic, a strategy as to how we translate what we know to be more inclusive policy — not just into opportunities to express how right we are but actually translate it to policy and try to make it work.
[Photos courtesy of Congressman Kildee’s office.]