Republicans are promising the change the way the House works if they win a majority. But this reflects a basic confusion about purposes:
If Republicans win the House in November, John Boehner and his top lieutenants say they’re ready to spread the power.
Look for a return of committee influence in preparing legislation — re-establishing the authority of diminished chairmen — and an easing of the hammerlock that leaders of both parties have exercised.
They make clear that they plan not only to change the top-down management style of Speaker Nancy Pelosi but also to pare back the excesses and power plays that occurred during the 12 years of Republican control under Newt Gingrich, Dennis Hastert and Tom DeLay.
“We will restructure the House,” said Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.). “We will empower the public. We will have more open debate.”
Allowing more open debate and transparency is one kind of reform. Removing power from the leadership and devolving it to committee chairman is a completely different kind of reform. Indeed, the two are often at cross-purposes. Democratic reformers from the 1950s through the 1970s, and Republican insurgents who won the House in 1994, both saw reform and transparency as requiring less power for committee chairmen. After all, these chairmen have little accountability and tend to be very tight with the lobbyists most intersted in their committee's work.
Empowering chairmen is probably a bad idea all around -- bad from a public interest standpoint, and bad from the standpoint of a party trying to push a coherent agenda.