Reed’s Rules

Rules make it possible for the House to act

By Bob Brown

Thomas Brackett “Czar” Reed was the speaker of the United States House of Representatives in the 1890s. As his moniker implies, he was a strong leader who believed in results. He is famous for his toughness, acerbic wit, and most importantly for his imposition of “Reed’s Rules,” which empowered his majority Republicans to “govern,” and relegated the minority Democrats to simply “watch” as the majority ruled.

The modern day Congressional Freedom Caucus, made up of a small minority of far right members, would have despised Reed even more than they do John Boehner. They also resent and oppose House rules, which continue as Reed intended, to concentrate important powers of the House in the office of the speaker.

Attempts have been made in the past century, most notably in 1911, 1923, and 1975 to liberalize the House rules to give more power to new members and various minorities. The ire of the outsiders is usually focused on the House Rules Committee. After a bill has been recommended to the whole House for approval, it must first be diverted to the Rules Committee, which stipulates whether or how the bill can be amended in floor debate, and how much time will be allotted for debate before a vote must be taken.

Minority party members, or those not in the membership mainstream for whatever reason, can feel muzzled and frustrated by legislative rules imposed by the majority controlled Rules Committee, which is usually dominated by the speaker. After all, they argue, members are equally elected and each should have an equal opportunity to propose amendments and speak for or against any amendment or bill. Ideally so, but if a final outcome is to be reached, especially in a body as large as 435 members, endless amendments cannot be allowed.

Rules make it possible for the House to act. Its rules are why the House has passed scores of bills to the Senate this session of Congress, including over 50 measures supported by every member of the Freedom Caucus to repeal Obamacare. Minority Democrats would be far more empowered to obstruct and kill conservative legislation as a result of the relaxation of the rules. This is hardly an outcome one would think the Freedom Caucus is looking for.

The gridlock now gripping Congress is not due to the House rules or the philosophy of the speaker. It is due primarily to the Senate rule that allows a 40 percent minority to prevent passage of almost anything.

In spite of their determination to set themselves apart, Freedom Caucus members sadly reflect the limitations of the current Congress in which over half the members have served for less than six years. Freedom Caucus members have been there long enough to be sure they have all the right ideas to meet the needs of the country, but not long enough to have any idea of the necessity of compromise in meeting those needs from theirs or any other point of view.

They have it wrong, and Reed pretty much had it right. Our system can function for those who understand and respect it. It will always be frustrating for inexperienced ideologues aggressively impatient to impose only their solutions on a skeptical majority.

The House will meet the budget deadline it currently faces either as the result of a unifying compromise within the majority Republican party, or through a bipartisan compromise with minority Democrats. Ultimately a majority will prevail, and the only role for those not a part of the majority will be to watch what happens.

Bob Brown
Former Montana secretary of state

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