Midway through the third day of the ongoing battle to pick a new speaker of the House, Rep. Matt Rosendale (R–Mont.) made an innocuous but telling point about the state of Congress.
"We have had more discussion and debate over the last three days than I have participated in, on this floor, for the past two years," Rosendale, one of the group of breakaway Republicans who have refused to back Rep. Kevin McCarthy's (R–Calif.) bid to become speaker, pointed out.
The stakes of this week's congressional drama, he argued, are not merely about which House member will hold the ceremonial gavel but about a deeper problem with how Congress functions.
"The process that we use has been dramatically broken," Rosendale explained, lamenting "the consolidation of power into the hands of the speaker and the fortunate few who happen to serve on the Rules Committee, which control every aspect of legislation that travels through this body."
This is not a new complaint, but it remains an underappreciated one. For the past few decades, Congress has shifted away from its traditional process for passing legislation—the one that's more or less reflected in the famous Schoolhouse Rock! song: A bill gets proposed, marked up in committee, amended, and finally put to a debate and voted on by the full chamber. Instead, as Rosendale explained Thursday, major bills are drafted by a handful of high-ranking leaders on both sides, then presented to the full House (usually with scant time to read or process what's in them) for a simple up-or-down vote with few or no amendments allowed.
The result, as American Enterprise Institute congressional scholar Kevin Kosar explained to Roll Call in November, is that leaders can more easily push legislation through the House with party-line votes. The downside, however, is that "legislators feel like they're not legislators," Kosar said.
One way to understand this week's Republican revolt against McCarthy, then, is that it's not really about McCarthy at all. It's actually a rank-and-file revolt against the top-down process that both parties have used to control the House in recent years. But the margins are thin enough right now that a few handfuls of lawmakers who are fed up with the process can use the speaker election as a pressure point to force a change.
Much of the media has lazily framed the speakership fight as a battle for personal power, but the renegade Republicans have made it clear what they are seeking. All the way back in July, the House Freedom Caucus published a list of demands for the next session. Right at the top of the document is a lengthy explanation of why the group believes power must be decentralized away from the speaker's hands. None of this should be coming as a surprise right now.
But the idea that rank-and-file legislators should get to exert some influence—to, as Rosendale put it, actually have debates on the floor of the House about the best course of action—is now something of a foreign concept in Washington, which might help explain why so many people seem to be surprised by this eruption of democracy. President Joe Biden has described this week's speaker election as "embarrassing," but the real embarrassment is what happened last month: when Congress passed a 4,000-page, $1.7 trillion spending bill that most lawmakers had little time to read and no real opportunity to influence.
"We have an oligarchy right now," former Rep. Justin Amash, who has complained for years about the top-down process used to push legislation through Congress, told Reason's Robby Soave on Thursday. "It's the leaders of the parties in Congress, and it's the president of the United States. Those people are deciding everything."
Change doesn't occur without a good reason. It's not yet clear that holding up the anointing of a new speaker of the House will result in any serious changes to the way Congress operates, but it seems like a game worth playing.
And it's a game the House Freedom Caucus might be winning. Politico reported yesterday that a brewing deal between McCarthy and the holdout Republicans would include "major changes to the appropriations process" including "standalone votes on each of the 12 yearly appropriations bills" and "allowing floor amendments to be offered by any lawmaker."
To be sure, some of the other demands the group of holdouts is making—including a vote on beefed-up immigration rules and the inclusion of House Freedom Caucus members on the all-powerful Rules Committee—may not be on-net victories for democracy or limited government. There's not much of a reason to root for this faction to take full control of Congress, but there's also little reason to fear that they will.
But you don't have to support the full House Freedom Caucus agenda or admire the often-noxious personalities within the group to recognize that they are absolutely right to demand changes in how Congress works.
"The debate and discussion has been all but eliminated, and the balance of us are left with a 'yes' or a 'no,'" Rosendale said Thursday. "Those are our options, and that is what has led to the disintegration of the relationships that we see across this floor."
In other words, the fight over the speakership election isn't evidence that Congress is broken. In fact, it might offer a glimmer of hope that the House can still be fixed.