House of Representatives

The First Reform

The United States needs peace. Not just world. It needs intramural peace: Peace between the colors of the states; among the colors of its people. It needs peace with all its citizens. It needs peace with itself. Clearly this past election heralds just such an opportunity: a return to comity and normalcy. A return to plain decency.

Today, both relief and desperation are in the air. After four years of Trump—four years of limitless lies, of constitutional chaos, of fraudulent facts, we remain a divided nation. So how do we bridge the gap? How do we make the fundamental principle of democracy—of majority rule—work for everyone?

The president of the United States is often referred to as the most powerful person in the world. He (or she) is leader of the world’s largest economy and controls the nuclear codes of the world’s most powerful nation. Often overlooked are two people of almost equal, certainly competing, power. In truth, they do not have a bully pulpit; they cannot send soldiers to battle; nor issue executive orders. But they, too, are powerful. And that power needs a correction. I am, of course, referring to the Speaker of the House and the Majority Leader of the Senate. These two, more than any other elected official, determine what laws get made. In the case of the senate leader, he also determines what presidential appointees get confirmed. For that matter, whether or not said appointees even get a hearing or a vote.

It is important for whichever party controls the houses of Congress, that their respective leaders exercise influence over the members of their own party as they shepherd bills through the legislative process. But it is even more important that these two leaders not impede the process and progress of true democracy.

Since we live in a representative democracy, we entrust our elected officials to enact legislation that reflects the will of the majority and hopefully advances the common good. That is how members of Congress secure our rights, strengthen our economy and most of all, heal a divided nation. It is not necessary for the leaders of the two houses to agree with each other, though that would be a bonus. But is essential that they allow the legislative process ample room to work as it was intended.

When legislation originates in one of the two houses, it is perfectly within the scope of the leader’s authority to determine which bills reach the floor and, in the process to marshal the support of their members. But currently the leader of one house can sit on bills that emerge from the other, thus stalling most meaningful legislation. Such intransigence also serves as a means of freezing a president’s agenda in order to weaken him and score political points.

Come this January, the first order of business in both Houses of Congress is to make one procedural change: When a bill arrives from one house it must be given a vote in the other. This will not diminish the role or power of the two leaders. They can still arm twist and in various other ways pressure their members to vote as a block. But vote they must.

This rule change will allow for each member of Congress to go on record for their votes—on every issue. It will make them more accountable to their constituents. And for those of us who still believe in what Congress should stand for, it might just free up some of them to vote their own conscience or at least put the country before party.