The Freedom Caucus Isn’t Wrong About Everything

Lee Drutman has a review of James M. Curry’s new book Legislating in the Dark: Information and Power in the House of Representatives in the January/February issue of our magazine. Drutman’s main thesis is that “while many of the [Freedom] caucus’s demands are ridiculous, the idea that the House should become a more deliberative place isn’t.”

Perhaps, more to the point, there are costs associated with the way Speakers have consolidated power. It allows them to get things done, but it may actually contribute to the dysfunction of the institution.

The drift away began in the late 1980s, when Democrat Jim Wright began to consolidate power in the speakership. In 1995, when Newt Gingrich was elected speaker, he affirmatively changed the model, eliminating subcommittees, weakening committees, and centralizing power in ways that had not been seen since the early twentieth century, when Republican Speakers Thomas Reed and Joseph Cannon operated effectively as czars.

Over time, resources have been shifted away from members and committees and towards leadership, and the result is that rank-and-file members have less influence and even less knowledge about the legislation they have to support or oppose.

Between 1998 and 2010, funds to majority leadership offices grew twice as fast (up 50 percent) as funds to personal offices (up 27 percent) and funds to committee offices (up just 22 percent). Moreover, legislation has become more and more complex, and complexity is a key tool of rank-and-file compliance (the longer the bill, the harder it is to read). Like members of the House Freedom Caucus, Curry laments these developments. “In shutting most lawmakers out of the legislative process, stifling their voices, and keeping them in the dark,” he writes, “leaders undermine the quality of legislative deliberations and dyadic representation in the House of Representatives.”

Drutman makes the case that House members would take more responsibility if they were given more responsibility. The job might become attractive enough to again inspire a better class of people to run for office. But it all begins with letting members have more information about legislation. More responsibility, more information, bigger and better staff, and we might find a way out of our current gridlock. And, in any case, it would take some power and influence away from lobbyists who have come in to fill the information void.

Make sure to read the whole thing.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.