To help John Boehner herd cats, bring back earmarks (and other ways to fix Congress)

Three key reforms could improve governance in Congress and lessen the disunity that plagued Speaker John Boehner and the Republicans throughout the debt-ceiling and government shutdown debate. Congressional leaders need more influence over their members, not less.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Speaker of the House John Boehner walks to the chamber for the vote on a Senate-passed bill that averted a Treasury default and ended the government shutdown Oct. 16. Op-ed contributor John J. Pitney Jr. writes: 'In the decidedly non-angelic House of Representatives, stronger leadership is now' a necessary control 'to harness the power of self-interest.'

If you asked Americans to name problems with American politics, they might point to political back scratching in Congress

But it isn’t a problem. It’s the solution. Giving congressional leaders more leverage to influence their members will help lessen the kind of in-party disunity that plagued House Speaker John Boehner and the Republican Party throughout the debt-ceiling and government shutdown debate.

Consider how Congress got into the trouble of the last few weeks. In his public statements over the years, Speaker Boehner (R) of Ohio made it clear that he did not want a government shutdown, much less a near-default. He served in the House GOP leadership during the 1995-1996 shutdowns, so he knew how much political turmoil could ensue.

But to make deals with President Obama and the Democratic-controlled Senate, he needed support from his own followers – and time after time, tea party Republicans declined to give it.

On Netflix’s House of Cards series, a leader can bend colleagues to his will, so why can’t Speaker Boehner? The answer, in a word, is leverage. Whereas the show’s House Majority Whip Frank Underwood has a seemingly limitless supply of favors to grant or withhold, the real-world speaker does not. Strengthening the speakership means restocking the office with carrots and sticks.

Campaign finance would be a good starting point. Some Americans may believe that politicians giving campaign money to one another is problematic fodder for underhanded deal-making. In fact, it’s essential lubrication for legislation.

Money doesn’t necessarily buy votes, but it does buy attention – and greases the wheels for the kind of loyalty and cooperation that are essential to governing. Giving congressional leaders more liberty to support members’ campaigns would help further those critical relationships.

Federal law limits how much money any congressional leader can contribute to a party colleague. Although it takes well over $1 million to win the average House seat, a speaker’s political action committee can only give $5,000 per candidate per election.

So if leaders are to get more attention and support from members, it would make sense to let them give more money. Specifically, Congress should raise the contribution cap for the political action committees of the speaker and the minority leader, along with their Senate counterparts.

This proposed change in federal law might face opposition from campaign-finance reformers and thus face a presidential veto. Another move, however, would just require a tweak of internal party rules.

Each congressional party has a campaign committee that can supply substantial help to candidates. The leader of the House Democrats has de facto control of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee through the power to appoint its chair. House Republicans, by contrast, let the rank and file choose the chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee. They should follow the Democratic model and give that job to the speaker.

More influence over campaign resources would translate into more influence in the chamber.

There’s also the issue of congressional leaders using committee assignments as a way to pressure rank-and-file lawmakers to vote a certain way. Voters may view this practice as a corrupting political force. In fact, it’s key to congressional governance – and congressional leaders need more leverage in this area, not less.

Much of Congress’s work takes place in legislative committees. The speaker directly chooses the majority members of only three committees: Rules, Ethics, and House Administration. The same process should apply to the Appropriations, Budget, and Ways and Means Committees. Lawmakers covet positions on these committees because they largely control economic policy. With the power to appoint or remove their majority members, the speaker would have great influence over their decisions.

Finally, there’s the matter of earmarks – much maligned by the American public, but also critical to lawmaking. In the not-too-distant past, a speaker could gain support from lawmakers by arranging for earmarks, legislative provisions that targeted funds to specific projects in their districts. While most earmarks went to unremarkable purposes such as highway construction, a few notorious cases of abuse made them an object of public scorn. When Republicans took control of the House in 2011, they banned earmarks.

Big mistake.

In January, Rep. Tom Cole (R) of Oklahoma told BusinessWeek that removing earmarks means that “you’re removing all incentive for people to vote for things that are tough.” Republicans should end the ban, as long as the public record spells out which members sought which earmarks. Transparency is a better remedy for abuse than an outright prohibition.

Tea party Republicans want to keep the ban, but their case is shaky. Earmarks never accounted for more than a trivial percentage of outlays. Most of them did not even add to federal spending but merely directed where appropriations would go, so forgoing them means delegating these decisions to the executive branch. Arguably, such delegation of authority is inconsistent with the Constitution, which gives the power of the purse to Congress.

One broad objection to all of these ideas, of course, is that they hinge on lawmakers’ political interest instead of the public interest. So does much of our system. The Framers of the Constitution hoped to encourage the selection of wise officials, and they designed institutions to foster careful deliberation. But they also sought to harness the power of self-interest. “If men were angels, no government would be necessary,” wrote James Madison. “If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.”

In the decidedly non-angelic House of Representatives, stronger leadership is now one of those necessary controls.

John J. Pitney, Jr. is the Roy P. Crocker Professor of American Politics at Claremont McKenna College and coauthor of After Hope and Change: The 2012 Elections and American Politics (Rowman and Littlefield).

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