Carrots and Sticks: Reform Has Left House Speaker Without Power to Prevent Gridlock

Being speaker of the House is the most difficult job in politics, whether you are presiding over the state legislature or the U.S. House. Given the larger number of members from a more diverse number of districts means maintaining discipline, and getting anything done requires mad skills.

Members also stand for election every two years, so they are constantly running for office.

A speaker, in Nashville or Washington, needs carrots and sticks to have discipline and get anything accomplished. The problem with Congress these days is that the speaker no longer has carrots and sticks because we demanded reform.

Remember when we thought earmarks were the worst thing in the world? We had to get rid of the bridge to nowhere and the appropriation to study the sex lives of wombats.

There was a time when Congress actually passed budgets. Almost four years ago, the committees would function as they should and produce a spending framework for the federal government. House members depended on committee chairs and the leadership to get their appropriations into the budget. The earmarks were a tool for the speaker and his committee chairs to enforce discipline. You didn’t want to piss off the people who decided whether you got that appropriation for the Oak Ridge National Laboratory or an interstate highway repair or fix the lock on a dam in your district. Congress has not passed a budget in the past three years.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi maintained discipline in the Democratic caucus. That stimulus bill was larded with pork, er, I mean earmarks and appropriations for her members. She could get it done because the Democrats also controlled the Senate.

House Speaker John Boehner can pass budgets all day long, as the Republicans have, only to have them be dead on arrival in the Senate. Boehner can’t pass out carrots to his caucus to bring them along to vote for a grand bargain; he had to have Democrats vote with him to pass the fiscal-cliff bill.

The House has been so successful in gerrymandering districts that a huge number of its members no longer have to worry about losing an election—as long as they can avoid a primary challenge. There is no downside to angering the House leadership if you are invulnerable back home.

The rise of special-interest PACs and super PACs have also lessened the influence of political parties. If you go your own way in House votes, you can likely get all the money you need for re-election from the Club for Growth or any number of other anti-tax groups.

Indeed, the only danger most members face is not voting conservative enough and having a more conservative candidate come along with a bank account full of special-interest money.

So without having carrots or sticks, Boehner is rightly perceived to be the weakest speaker of the House in memory. It means he is unlikely to be able to negotiate spending cuts or tax reform or immigration reform or much of anything else with the Democrats.

He can’t control his caucus because he has no leverage. He even had members of his leadership team vote against the fiscal-cliff bill. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy voted against Boehner’s deal. He even replaced some committee chairs, but it still resulted in a dozen of his members voting against his re-election as Speaker. Including some former chairs.

The only way to stop gridlock in Washington is to repeal reform and give more power back to the leadership. A House cannot function without discipline.

Ironic isn’t it? Structural reform has precluded the possibility of reform of anything else.

PERSONAL NOTE: Like most everyone I know, I thoroughly enjoyed knowing the late Mary Lou Horner, longtime Knox County commissioner. She often gave me advice on how I ought to do my job and I would respond by asking her what it was like to serve with Gov. John Sevier. We will miss her enthusiasm, her sense of humor, and her common-sense approach to politics. So long, Mary Lou.

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