Should We Abolish Boehner, Cantor, Pelosi, and the U.S. House?

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October 5, 2013; BBC

The Washington blame game on the shutdown is in full swing. At the American Enterprise Institute, Gary Schmitt blames President Obama, saying that “shutting down the government should be anathema to any president who takes his oath seriously.” Former congressman (now TV pundit) Joe Scarborough says that Sen. Ted Cruz is most responsible for the shutdown.

Interestingly, given that many of them plan to run for reelection if not election for higher office, Republican governors are making it clear that they wouldn’t handle this like federal legislators. Speaking for a number of his Republican gubernatorial colleagues, Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal pulled no punches about the behavior of Republicans in Washington:

“We are no longer going to outsource the Republican brand to the talking heads in Washington,” Jindal and others said in a press release from the Republican Governors Association. He added in an interview with CBS, “there is only one place where conservative principles are really being applied, and it’s in the states, not in Washington.” Jindal’s New Jersey colleague, Chris Christie, is frustrated that President Obama hasn’t taken House and Senate leaders into a room, locked the doors, and kept them prisoner until they emerged with a budget deal. That sounds like what a tough-minded nonprofit CEO would do with a board of directors split down the middle and unable to make decisions.

But how much of the budget impasse is structural, beyond the personality limitations and defects of the major protagonists in the White House and at the Capitol, due to an ideologically cemented House of Representatives?

If the problem really is structural after all, how might government be changed to get past this situation? This past week, there was a referendum in Ireland on whether to abolish the upper house of the Irish Parliament, the Seanad Éireann. With a turnout at nearly 40 percent, the proposal narrowly lost, 48.3 percent in favor of doing away with the Seanad, 51.7 percent opposed.

The motivation behind the referendum in cash-strapped Ireland was the cost of running the Seanad. Eliminating it would have saved an estimated 20 million euros. The theory held by the coalition for abolishing the Seanad was, as the Irish Taoiseach (prime minister) Enda Kenny suggested, that a more effective and accountable government would result.

In this country, as even Jindal and Christie acknowledge, there is a vibrant structure of local and state government doing the people’s business. As of the August congressional recess, the 113th Congress had passed and sent to the president all of 22 bills; the 112th, widely seen as the most unproductive Congress ever, had passed 28 during its January-to-recess time. According to Karen Suhaka, writing for BillTrack50, in 2011­­–2012, to take a potentially representative year, most states passed between 200 and 800 bills, the highest being Virginia and Texas, with enacted bills coming close to 1,600. It would appear that the active legislative dynamic in the federal system is in state capitols.

The dysfunction of Congress in recent years, compounded by the system of gerrymandering districts so that members play to their constituents rather than broader governmental concerns, has sidelined most members of Congress. Decisions are made by the leadership. Witness the budget process, which largely involves Boehner and Cantor meeting—or not meeting—with Senate Majority Leader Reid and the White House. The idea of appropriations committees passing bills on specific components of the federal budget is now a dim memory of olden times.

So, maybe we need a streamlined federal process. Given that the Senate is reportedly more collegial than the warring encampments in the House, should the U.S. ask the Sinn Fein what they had in mind as their strategy with the Seanad, and whether that might work to rid the nation of the likes of Steve King (R-IA), Steve Stockman (R-TX), Mike Rogers (R-AL), Michele Bachmann (R-MN), Phil Gingrey (R-GA), Tom Massie (R-KY), Louie Gohmert (R-TX), Mark Meadows (R-NC), John Fleming (R-LA), and Paul Broun (R-GA), identified by Gawker as the 10 House ideologues so extreme that they bear major responsibility for having pushed hapless Speaker Boehner into this budget deadlock? Remember, they’re going to have an opportunity to do more damage with the upcoming budget ceiling.—Rick Cohen

  • Bonnie McEwan

    While abolishing the House would feel satisfying to many of us in the short term, it is not a practical, long-term solution, if for no other reason than doing so would be unconstitutional in the extreme.

    We might, however, prohibit the destructive practice of gerrymandering by state legislatures. It is ironic for states to claim that they are governing well when their legislatures have created these extremely partisan districts. Gerrymandering is prohibited by the Voting Rights Act — and we know what the a Supreme Court thinks of that — but states manage to do it anyway.

    And we might also join Sen. Al Franken and others in their efforts to rescind the dreadful Citizens United decision of our activist Supreme Court. The influence of big money in elections has corrupted the democratic process and turned politics into something of a circus freak show.

  • Rick Cohen

    Dear Bonnie: Of course you’re right, but you’re pointing out how, in this nation’s granting big money and wingnuts the ability to gerrymander Congress into legislative dysfunction, we’ve all been participants in turning the House of Representatives into what it is today. If you read NPQ columns, you’ll see we’ve been very very strong on campaign finance reform, even though the nonprofit sector writ large hasn’t taken that issue on the way it should.

  • Patrick Bell

    The Constitution provides for a check-and-balance structure for a reason – so that the government stays somewhat inefficient. Countries with really efficient governments are typically referred to as dictatorships, the avoidance of which was a major concern for the Founding Fathers. We gripe about the inefficiencies of bureaucracy, but only in those areas of our own, narrow self-interest. We ignore the parts that actually work, and, unless we’re in public service, ignore that the driver in bureaucracies is equal access to service for all in society, with some perceived sacrifice of quality and efficiency as a result.

    The real problem for the House is accountability for the polarization, which may well be coming in the next round of elections for the obstructionists. And, if it doesn’t, then we get what we deserve, even though I didn’t vote for Ted Cruz. The ultra-conservatives, as represented by the Tea Party, is convinced they are right, so there is no need for negotiation or compromise, and these are counter to their thinking and beliefs. We can and have screwed up a system that depends on working across the aisle, but this too shall pass – so throwing out or tinkering with the structure is not the answer.

    Terrible as it sounds, the intransigents among the Republicans who render Boehner feckless may have to really ness up the economy before their theories prove unacceptable to the electorate. Sort of like people say in AA – you haven’t hit bottom yet so you’re not ready for recovery. There’s not enough pain in the system yet to induce any change.

  • EMM

    As much as I would give all of Congress a grade of F for their performance over the last decade, I would not be in favor of radically changing the structure of our government.

    I think that there is a serious dearth of leadership in government. President Obama has never garnered the respect of Congress that he needs to lead effectively. John Boehner couldn’t lead a girl scout troop. However, this situation will pass.

    My question is this … Does anyone really think that the Tea Partiers should be allowed to call themselves Republicans? It seems to me that the Tea Party is to the Republicans as the Green Party is to the Democrats. The big difference is that the members of the Green Party are possessed of the integrity to acknowledge that they are not Democrats. In contrast, the Tea Partiers are co-opting the Republican “brand” and taking advantage of that label to squeeze out true Republican candidates in the national elections.

    By letting the Tea Partiers call themselves Republicans, the choice that should be made in the general election among candidates of various ideologies is instead being made at the primary level, where the Tea Partiers choke out the candidates whose views are more aligned with the Republican Party platform. The Tea Partiers who masquerade as Republicans to get on the ballot at the primary level get the benefit of the Republican label.

    Unfortunately, John Boehner and the Republican party in general will not call the Tea Partiers out on this, because they would lose the majority in the House. Leadership is making the right decision for the country, even in the face of an apparent conflict of interest. Tea Partiers are NOT Republicans.