At first, I didn’t have strong feelings about the House Speaker’s race. I thought initial front-runner Kevin McCarthy might do a good job. I feel the same about other potential speakers, including Paul Ryan, Daniel Webster, and my good friend Jason Chaffetz.
More than anything, though, it seemed that what mattered was not who the next speaker is but what the next speaker does. I shared my thoughts with the handful of House colleagues who asked for them, but, as a senator, I didn’t feel it was my place to broadcast them.
Then late last week, we saw the Republican establishment’s overheated reaction to McCarthy’s surprise withdrawal from the race. Then suddenly, over the weekend, many more people started asking my opinions about the race after a New York Times columnist nominated yours truly for the job.
I have no interest in that job, of course. But given this strange new environment, I thought it might now be appropriate for me to suggest a few lessons conservative reformers can take from the events of the last few weeks, for whatever they are worth.
Lesson 1: Politics Is a Team Sport
This is no original insight, of course. But, as Samuel Johnson said, “People need to be reminded more often than they need to be instructed.”
Usually Republican leaders wield this lesson as a cudgel against conservative back-benchers. But in the last year, anti-establishment conservatives really seem to have learned it. The rapid emergence of the House Freedom Caucus as a driving force within the House Republican Conference is a testament to its members’ vigorous application of this lesson.
The HFC may not be on the team in the way GOP bosses use the word. But HFC members have demonstrated an ability to be very effective playing on a team.
This seems to me a useful lesson, first, for my friends in the HFC themselves, as they figure out how to translate the negative, veto-type influence they have won into positive reform. But the HFC’s unity is also—or at least should be—a welcome sign for those Republicans now vying to lead the conference. Anti-establishment, Constitution-oriented reformers want very much to belong to and help a Republican Party in which they feel at home. They—that is to say, we—are actually trying to build that new Republican Party every day.
It shouldn’t be all that hard for GOP leaders to figure out how to assist and even guide that project. After all, party leaders work for their back-benchers and voters, not the other way around. The next successful Republican speaker should already know that, without being instructed or reminded.
Lesson 2: Uncertainty Is Good For Us
A handful of commentators—including Yuval Levin and Kevin Williamson of National Review and The Federalist’s David Harsanyi—have already made this point. But it suffices to say that a few days’ uncertainty about who is going to be the next Speaker of the House is not any well-adjusted adult’s definition of chaos. For goodness sake, in the Kosovo parliament last week, opposition members tear-gassed their own colleagues! One congressman’s decision to keep his current job for the time being is not the stuff of “Game of Thrones.”
There is an additional lesson here for the Right. Extreme discomfort with change and uncertainty is a bipartisan problem today, but Republicans in particular need to quit it with the pearl-clutching and fainting couches. I mean, have you read our platform? If the GOP really intends to unite and succeed in coming years, we’re going to have to deal with challenges much less predictable than a contested leadership election or two.
Good teams, like fighting units, are sharpened—made more disciplined and more daring—by action, after all. Indeed, a taste of bracing uncertainty might finally do for the GOP what millions of dollars in pollster and consultant fees have not.
For if you strip away the political and media attention from McCarthy’s withdrawal, and the ensuing Washington freak-out, all that really happened last week was this: a sure-thing continuation of a tight-knit community’s happy status-quo was upended without notice or comforting contingency. Nobody knew what had happened, or why, or whom to blame, or how to move forward, or what sudden dislocation might come next.
In other words, the Republican establishment got a passing glimpse of what it’s like to be a working family in America today.
Washington Republicans would do well to imagine what jarring days like last Thursday are like for people who don’t work in the wealthiest metropolitan area in the country, who cannot expect to rebound from a job loss by doubling their income on K Street. In that context, should we really be surprised that legislative accomplishments like the permanent “doc fix” or Trade Promotion Authority (however laudable they may be) have done little to strengthen our party’s brand this year?
It seems to me that Republicans in Washington—speaker candidates or not, conservatives and moderates—need to think about what kind of policy reforms might more directly empower struggling families to survive and thrive amid uncertainties of their own. From this overdue examination might come more fruitful internal debates and a more appealing reform agenda.
Getting used to facing and overcoming uncertainty, together, will make a new Republican Party at once more flexible and resilient, more united, and more appealing to a public already in the same boat. As always, we could learn a thing or two from the people we serve.
Lesson 3: This Is Only The Beginning
Whether the GOP embraces uncertainty or not, it is coming. It’s not chaos or crisis. It’s just disruption. You know, that cool, buzzy phenomenon Republican elites have championed in every other industry (that is, when it was at some one else’s throat)? Well, now it’s coming to drink their milkshakes, too.
Tea Party primaries, SuperPAC politics, and the breakdown of the Boehner-Cantor-McCarthy leadership team are only the beginning. In this context, Congress today is just one more opaque, out-of-touch, legacy institution left over from a vanished era of centralized power now losing public credibility as the rest of American life grows ever more decentralized, personalized, and accountable.
This—not the forces of creative destruction, but Washington’s grinding resistance to them—is the source of Congress’s tedious, toxic dysfunction. As institutions, the House and Senate are clinging to an obsolete way of legislating.
When Washington insiders today talk of “getting back to regular order”—which, let’s be honest, they do only selectively, when it serves their own interests—what they’re often longing for is a process in which leaders and committee chairmen write bills in secret with the help of lobbyists, then hand out earmarks to buy off principled dissent and secure votes for passage.
That centralized, hierarchical process, long ago discredited as corrupt and corrupting, is just another victim of the disruptive forces of transparency and accountability that took down your local Borders Books and Tower Records stores years ago. It’s not coming back.
As long as Congress resists the decentralizing forces changing the way Americans solve problems, we will continue to have—and deserve—the American people’s contempt. The next House speaker, and the Republican Conference he or she leads, needs to understand that this institutional disruption (a) cannot be resisted, and (b) should be championed, because it will be a good thing for the American people.
Lesson 4: Open-Sourcing Congress
The challenge for congressional Republicans now—from the new Speaker on down—is not “getting back” to the old way of doing things, but devising entirely new ways of “getting things done.” The good news is that conservatives have an inherent advantage on this front, as our view of the world already inclines us toward bottom-up decentralization. The party of free enterprise and voluntary civil society is the natural home of open-source policy innovation.
For the new Speaker and all congressional Republicans, it’s not enough to decentralize power from Washington to the states and the American people. We have to decentralize power within the federal government, too. As a Congress, that means we need to wrest back legislative authority from the executive branch to make federal lawmaking more directly accountable to the American people than ever.
Internally, too, the Republican majority should modernize and decentralize the legislative process according to the same principles. We need to move power out of congressional leadership and into the hands of rank-and-file members. We need to make more decisions in public, on the House and Senate floors, and fewer in secret meetings behind closed doors. We need to move legislative action away from the rigid, outdated committee structure and into more flexible, open-source networks of members.
After years of frustrating dysfunction, conservatives should recognize that the only way we can reform policy is to first reform the way we make policy. Conservatives need an agenda of institutional modernization and reform to complement and facilitate our broader agenda of policy reform. (As it happens, I have been working for months with several colleagues on just such a decentralization project that we’ll start rolling out in the next few weeks. Stay tuned.)
How Conservatives and the Establishment Can Work Together
Taken together, I believe the four lessons above point toward the terms of a more perfect union between anti-establishment conservatives and Republican congressional leaders, neither of whom can truly succeed without the other.
The path to unity is neither decapitating leadership nor unquestioning obedience in the back benches. Rather, it’s the creation of a different model for governing better suited to modern realities.
Anti-establishment conservatives do need to understand that the GOP lacks the power to do certain things without the presidency. At the same time, congressional leaders and proverbial “old bulls” need to understand that some of their inherited legacy powers no longer serve the cause or the country. They all too frequently serve Washington’s K Street favor bank, which neither conservative reformers nor the American people should be expected to accept.
Conservatives shouldn’t want more brinksmanship and showdowns to highlight our ideas; we should want a consistent, inclusive legislative process that renders those tactics all but obsolete. Contrary to so much punditry this last week, I don’t think conservatives need a Speaker all Republicans can blindly trust to cut backroom deals for us, but a Speaker who organizes the House’s work so backroom deals become a thing of the past.
If you actually talk to conservative House members about what they want in a new Speaker, you’ll find they don’t mention names or ideology. What they want most are changes to House and conference rules, which will—in their minds—give the legislative process more fairness and legitimacy in this new, “disrupted” political climate. (In the Senate, on the other hand, we don’t need new rules so much as we need more rigorous application of the current rules. Long live the filibuster! But that’s an argument for another time.)
The upshot of these reforms would involve less leadership micromanagement of the floor, less-certain outcomes on votes, more rank-and-file input on chairmanships and the agenda, longer work weeks for members, and—not least—a healthy, constructive outlet for anti-establishment conservatives’ laudable pursuit of more rapid and substantial reform.
Is that really so high a price to pay for more cooperation and unity, considering that conservatives have already proven they can break leadership’s once-iron grip on those procedural levers?
A Speaker candidate who went to the Freedom Caucus with those “concessions” would only be offering the sleeves off of his vest. It’s the status quo, after all, that’s tearing the Party apart—why should Republican leaders try to salvage it?
In an absence of trust, what Republicans need now is an abundance of transparency. For conservatives, greater transparency and institutional decentralization won’t mean we can suddenly win every fight. It will only mean we can fight fights of our choosing, and win or lose them fair and square.
Leadership, on the other hand, should stop trying to rig the process to control the marketplace of ideas, and simply give the American people and their elected representatives access to a fair, open, and accountable competition. Like Uber, but for Congress.
Again, creative destruction is coming to Washington, whether we like it or not. Republicans’ only choice is whether to resist the inexorable forces of transparency and accountability, or embrace them.
Reform will be a process of trial-and-error, to be sure. But the good news is that for the Sanders-Clinton-Pelosi-Reid Democrats, the centralization of power, however discredited, remains their sacred, organizing principle. Washington’s toxic status quo—however despised by the American people—is nothing less than the crowning achievement of generations of progressives. Democrats really have no choice but to vehemently defend the status quo and shake their fists at noisy reformers to get off their lawn.
The field of reform, therefore, is wide open to the Right, and especially to the rising generation of Republican leaders now starting to emerge in the House of Representatives. Only a total failure of imagination would lead one to see this as a risk rather than an opportunity.
However comfortable Washington’s corrupt and dysfunctional status quo may be to many individual insiders, that status quo remains the principal impediment to conservative reform, Republican unity, and Congress’s public approval. Once Republican leaders grasp that fact and begin taking steps toward reform, they’ll be astonished at how effective and cohesive a team they will suddenly find themselves leading.
The Republican establishment’s failure of leadership over the years is no excuse for conservatives’ failure of imagination now. Conservatives have to start working immediately on our own agenda of prudent but disruptive institutional innovation, so that regardless of who the next Speaker is, he or she will walk into the job with a blueprint for success.
In this new era, Washington’s centralized status quo has been scheduled for the “destruction” side of the equation; it’s up to conservative reformers now to deliver the “creative.”