The payoff of a Third Party Think Tank
Imagine a Great Congress

Tough isn't it? Would you settle for a tolerably good Congress?

Climb with me into the time-warp machine, and let's scoot forward to the first business day in January, 2015. The House of Representatives is gaveled to order by the clerk, roll is called electronically, a quorum is announced, and the Clerk calls for nominations for Speaker of the House. So far, this is like any other first day of Congress that you or I have ever seen.

And then it gets interesting. Instead of the usual two Speaker nominations, there are five. A Democrat, a Republican, a Libertarian, and two independents. As usual, all the Democrats vote for the Democrat, and the Republicans for the Republican—but ten other members vote for one of the other three candidates.

No one has a majority. And no one is surprised. These odd events were foretold the first week in November, when Americans elected a handful of independent and minor-party candidates—and didn't elect enough Democrats and Republicans for either party to hold a House majority.

Within a few minutes, another vote is taken. This time, all but a few of the members vote for the Republican candidate. Again no one is surprised, because this little bit of theater had been negotiated weeks earlier. Republicans had paid dearly in rules concessions for the privilege of electing the Speaker.

The Speaker is sworn in, followed by all the House members.

In something of a departure, the newly elected Speaker now calls for adoption of the House rules. The Constitution declares that each house of Congress will operate by its own rules. Since the entire House is chosen in each election, every newly elected House since 1789 has adopted new rules. In modern times, those rules have typically cloned the rules of the old Congress, with a few changes imposed by the majority party. The new rules are usually adopted by a party-line vote.

But this year (2015) is different. The new rules have not-so-much been written, as battled over—and not by the majority party, because there is none—but by a shifting series of informally convened committees and caucuses. The final package, including its attendant agreement that the Republicans would elect the Speaker, was agreed in a late-night session on the 23rd of December, barely allowing members-elect time to fly home for the holidays.

On this January day, there is still some tension in the chamber. No one is fully convinced that all the compromises have survived the holiday. No one is sure what will happen if they haven't.

It seems to hold, though. Debate time has been limited as part of the agreement. The debate is not really a debate, but its tone is unlike prior years. Most of the members who rise call on their colleagues to pass these hard-won rules, and to enter the new session with a spirit of community, if not of unity.

After the debate, two votes are taken. One block of rules is a package that can be approved by a simple majority, and can be changed at any time by a simple majority. But another package of rules, covering committee creation, bringing bills to vote, and other critical procedures, is written so that it requires approval by two-thirds of the voting members—and those rules can only be changed by the same super-majority, after a deliberately detailed process for proposing changes. The rules will only apply to this House, not to future congresses, but these few critical rules will be exceedingly difficult to amend during the two-year term of these members.

The first package passes easily, and a lighter mood comes to the floor. The second vote begins, and proceeds with only a few nays. A loud and sustained cheer erupts when the 290th yea vote is tendered. A few tears are seen. Some of the longer-serving members understand that they have just been saved from themselves. Business in this new House will be a different thing than before.

Some other minor business is conducted, including setting the daily meeting time of the House, and electing not one, but three minority leaders—a Republican, a Democrat, and an independent to lead a third caucus.

At this moment, the Speaker looks a little constipated. It's time for his party to pay the dues for his election as Speaker, and something happens that no one, dead or alive has ever seen in this chamber. Implementing the new rules for the first time, the Speaker calls on the Democratic leader to select one of the twenty-one House committees. In this environment there really is no choice. The party that controls the Rules Committee, even under these newly adopted rules, will still have great influence over moving legislation to the floor. After selecting the Rules Committee, the leader announces her choice to chair it.

Then the independents and minor-party candidates get their payoff for the compromises they've made; they'll be awarded a major committee chair, even though collectively they hadn't won enough seats to qualify on a percentage basis. The prestigious and powerful House Appropriations Committee will be chaired by a political independent, who in November had narrowly won a seat held by Republicans for twenty years.

Now the Republican leader is called on to make a selection. It is Ways and Means, arguably the third most powerful committee. Its chairperson is announced.

The independents have selected their only chair, so the remaining committees are chosen in rotation by the Republicans and Democrats. It doesn't take long. A resolution is introduced to approve the chair appointments. It is passed unanimously.

The Speaker announces that tomorrow's first business will be to select leadership for half of the many subcommittees, using a similar process. (The independent caucus will choose two subcomittees.) He reminds the Representatives that each caucus will hold proportional membership on committees and subcommittees, according to the formula agreed upon over the past weeks, and that the caucuses should make their appointments as soon as possible. (No committee or subcommittee will have a majority of members from one party.) Some committee meetings will begin within a week.

He adjourns the House until the next day, and leaves immediately for one of Washington's watering holes.

How crazy is this future-fiction? Actually, it's way more probable than your favorite Star Trek episode; it doesn't even require warp-drive. In more relevant terms, it's likely easier, more achievable and more effective than campaign finance reform or lobbying reform, and makes far more sense than trying to elect a third-party candidate as President. And it's far less fanciful than believing that a change of party in the House, the Senate or the Presidency will accomplish something this time.

The big problem with this tale is that no one alive today has any experience making something like this happen. It hasn't been done in the past century and a half. So we have to teach each other how. A lot of smart people—you among them—know some of what we need. If we work together, we can put it all together. But we have to start now. We don't know that our democracy and our nation will collapse without this—but we don't know that it won't.

Yeah, I'm talkin' to you. Ask a question. Offer a solution. Write an article. Link this on Facebook. Email a friend. Tweet a lover. Take a politician to lunch—OK, that's asking a lot, but you can do it!

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