The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion What Congress needs is an Uprising of the Serious

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) at the Capitol on Dec. 23. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)

Steven Pearlstein is the Robinson professor of public affairs at George Mason University. He is a former business and economics columnist for The Post and was awarded the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary.

The great mystery about our dysfunctional Congress is why so many of its members — good people from both parties who are serious about resolving the nation’s pressing problems — surrender their power to leaders and colleagues obsessed only with winning the next round of a partisan blood feud.

Surely they know that nothing will change if they continue to spend their days tweeting out partisan talking points, attending committee hearings that are mere political Kabuki, sitting through caucus meetings where party discipline is the only item on the agenda and dialing for dollars to win the next election so they can come back and do it all again.

And surely they understand that in a country and Congress so evenly divided, no party can long govern without a modicum of bipartisan cooperation.

As it happens, the convening of the new Congress next week presents a chance to change.

A small but determined band of far-right zealots is threatening to deny California Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the Republican leader, the speakership of the House unless he gives them what amounts to a veto on all legislation. The camp has driven the past two Republican speakers from office for daring to consider bargaining with Democrats. They fear the always-malleable McCarthy will be tempted to do the same.

The instinct of Democrats has been to gloat as members of the other party form a circular firing squad. But if, as they often profess, moderate Democrats are really interested in cooperating with serious Republicans, they should give McCarthy the votes he needs to become speaker. In exchange, Republican lawmakers eager to escape the thrall of the extremists would commit to using their procedural votes to insure that when legislation comes to the House floor, members can offer amendments — a rarity these days, no matter which party is in power. Such “open rules” do not guarantee bipartisanship, but they make it possible.

Such a deal must be an uprising of rank-and-file members. In today’s hyperpartisan environment, participation by party leaders would hopelessly divide their caucuses and thus damage their own power.

But what if McCarthy is so cowed by the zealots that he refuses a speakership won with Democratic votes? All the better. In that case, members of the Republican problem-solvers could join with Democrats to elect a speaker who, unlike McCarthy, commands respect on both sides of the aisle. Contrary to lore, speakers don’t have to be party leaders — they don’t even have to be members of the House. And under the rules of the House, they don’t really have much power. All the power we associate with modern speakers comes from leading the majority party, whose votes allow them to enact the rules and appoint members of committees, including the Rules Committee, which effectively decides which bills come before the House and which amendments (if any) can be offered. Losing the speakership would not mean that McCarthy and his enthusiasts lose power altogether.

What a bipartisan speaker could bring to the House is some much-needed comity and procedural fairness in place of the partisan rancor that has driven out civil discourse. Members of the minority party could exercise at least a small role in the legislative process.

I realize the idea of a bipartisan Uprising of the Serious sounds at once radical and naive.

The reason it sounds radical is because the House has been partisan and gridlocked for so long that few can imagine things any other way. In fact, before the 1990s, legislative outcomes were routinely determined by bipartisan majorities with the acquiescence of party leaders selected not for their fundraising skills or their ability to impose party unity, but for their skills as consensus builders and dealmakers.

As for naive, I can’t imagine anything more naive than believing McCarthy can win the speakership with only Republican votes without empowering the zealots and ensuring another two years of partisan grandstanding and gridlock.

Only something “naive” and “radical” can free Congress from the political straitjacket it has created for itself. The solution won’t come from party leaders who have amassed enormous power by stoking partisanship and entrenching party lines. It will not come from base voters trapped inside their media bubbles or the politicians who pander to them. It can only come when reasonable House members of both parties muster the courage, imagination and faith in each other to use the power they have always had to get important things done.