"We have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in March. No single statement better epitomizes everything that is wrong with how Congress works. While Speaker Pelosi was referring to Obamacare at the time, she could have been referring to any of the thousand-plus page bills Congress passed this year. This was not how the Framers intended Congress to be run.
The House of Representatives was designed to be a broad-based legislative body, more representative of widespread public opinion and responsive to the people than any other element of the federal government. This is why the Constitution grants the House exclusive power to initiate revenue bills and take the country to war. The Founders intended the House to be a decentralized lawmaking body, not one dominated by a few select leaders.
Unfortunately over the past several decades, leadership from both parties have concentrated more and more power into a select few leadership positions. This trend reached its zenith under Speaker Pelosi who routinely:
- bypassed committees entirely by writing major legislation in the Speaker's office or via the Rules Committee;
- created and funded parallel quasi-committees (e.g. the "Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming") to outflank dissenting committee chairs; and
- prevented opponents from offering their own proposals or amendments on the House floor.
To help prevent these practices from continuing, The Heritage Foundation recommends that the party caucuses of both parties adopt the following rules:
- Rank-and-file members, not party leaders, should be allowed equal opportunity to nominate and vote for each party's steering committee members;
- Term limits should apply to all House party leadership positions, including the Speaker; and
- A cap should be placed on the overall size of each committee so no one committee dominates the House.
The 112th Congress will not be sworn-in until January 2011. However, just weeks after the November 2 elections, each party will meet to create their steering committees, which then allocate positions of authority to govern the full body. If the American people send a strong message for change next week, both parties should strongly consider adopting the reforms above to show they have listened.