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Democrats want to modernize the House. Good luck with that.

- January 18, 2019

When Democrats adopted a new set of House rules for the 116th Congress, they charged a new committee with proposing reforms to modernize the House. It’s supposed to promote a more efficient Congress and to come up with suggestions for revamping legislative rules, improving technology, and improving recruitment and retention of staff.

Reformers have been optimistic about similar panels in past decades. But the track record of such efforts is not great. Special committees are often poor vehicles for the significant changes reformers seek, and the members who advocate for them often view them as failures.

Here are four takeaways from previous efforts to reform the House:

1. Leaders can set up reform committees to fail

House rules are important because they distribute a mix of parliamentary rights to chamber and partisan majorities, and to individual lawmakers and minority coalitions. That means changing the rules can often directly threaten the power of members of Congress.

Leaders, of course, know this. So do the powerful lawmakers who typically draft and report the resolutions that create the committees. So when leaders appoint reform panels, they often take the opportunity to co-opt or alter reformers’ goals — typically by limiting the scope of a committee’s recommendations before it even holds its first hearing.

For instance, House leaders established a reform committee in 1973 to study committee jurisdictions, oversight mechanisms and other procedures. But the Bolling committee was ambitious enough to worry House Democratic leaders — so much so that they ripped the study out of the select committee led by Rep. Richard Bolling (D-Mo.) and handed it to a panel chaired by the Democratic Caucus chairwoman, Rep. Julia Butler Hansen (D-Wash.). The Hansen committee offered far less potent recommendations that left in place most committees, jurisdictions and authorities.

This time, Democratic Party leaders have hamstrung the modernization committee from the start. In authorizing the panel, Democratic leaders required that the committee can’t issue recommendations unless passed by a two-thirds committee vote. Further, the committee must report back to the House before the end of the first session, giving the panel less than a year to do its work. With little time and a high bar to succeed, significant reform is nearly impossible.

2. Members don’t like the recommendations

Reforming Congress entails a lot of risks. Members build their policy, distributive and political goals around the existing power structure. They befriend party leaders and steering committee members to capture better committee assignments. They vote with committee chairs to secure pork-barrel projects. Voting against the system and the people who run it can risk career, constituent or policy goals in favor of often modest procedural gains, about which voters typically do not care or know little to nothing. In the rare moments Congress has considered significant procedural reform to alleviate broken processes, obstinate power or obstruction, the membership has often found it too risky or unpalatable.

Historical examples abound. Democrats, who controlled the House for 40 consecutive years, attempted multiple times to tailor committee jurisdictions, loosen seniority and empower their party leadership to no avail. The 1965 recommendations of a joint committee never saw a floor vote. The 1977 Obey Commission had its recommendations rejected on a procedural vote. Recommendations from the bipartisan Boren-Domenici-Hamilton-Dreier joint committee of 1993-1994 never gained much support. And the Republican-led Joint Select Committee on Budget and Appropriations Process Reform just voted down its own recommendations in November.

Reformers struggle to accurately gauge how far their fellow members are willing to go. The Monroney-Madden committee in 1965 sought advice from too many reform-minded witnesses, skewing its findings away from what was politically feasible. The Obey Commission’s proposals were defeated easily in part because they, too, drastically trimmed the power of committee chairs. David Dreier (R-Calif.), vice chair of the 103rd Congress’s joint committee, said he had several chairmen “verbally lash him” over the committee’s recommendations, adding that one chairman “literally grabbed me by the collar.”

3. Even successful reform committees are considered failures

Reformers have nearly uniformly viewed their committees’s results as failures. Historians often view the bipartisan La Follette-Monroney joint committee, responsible for the 1946 Legislative Reorganization Act (LRA), as the most successful joint reform committee, but reformers were greatly disappointed by what they saw as a limited final product. Reformers viewed processes like seniority, committee chair power and a lack of party influence as fundamental to Congress’s weakness vis-a-vis the increasingly influential executive branch. These fundamental issues instigated reform debate but quickly fell off the agenda. Rep. Mike Monroney (D-Okla.), the committee’s vice chairman, lamented that the bill ignored Congress’s most fundamental structural problems, such as seniority and committee chair power, which were considered off-limits during deliberations. Richard Bolling said of the 1946 LRA, “Fundamentally, the act touched nothing.” Congressional scholar Roger Davidson argued that the LRA was perhaps best known for creating the members’ retirement system, which was a sweetener for the structural changes in the bill.

In hindsight, the 1946 committee achieved the opposite of reformers’ intentions. Committee chairs emerged more powerful, seniority became virtually inviolate, and the committee system that reformers perceived as an institutional weakness became more entrenched.

4. Reform committees can be symbolically important

Nevertheless, these efforts can have a lasting impact, raising awareness about brewing problem spots in the chamber, sending a message to party leaders about unhappiness in the ranks, and helping organize future proposals and coalitions for reform. The failed 1965 panel helped to guide reformers in the 1970s, who adopted many of the earlier recommendations. Bolling’s committee in 1974 forced the Hansen committee to incorporate several of its proposals, including rule changes that allowed more committees to get a bite of the apple on particular issues. And the failed joint committee of 1993-1994 presaged many changes that Republicans adopted when they took control of the House in 1995 after 40 years in the minority.

The new select committee probably won’t deliver the types of changes its proponents want, but it may represent a very important step in the long process of reform.

Joshua Huder (@joshHuder) is a senior fellow at the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University.