Kevin McCarthy’s weeklong fight to become speaker of the House was called an embarrassment and a fiasco by many, but one of Washington’s most trusted voices on how to reform and improve Congress saw something much more positive.
Yes, there was grandstanding by some House Republicans who spend most of their time performing rather than legislating, said Yuval Levin, director of social, cultural and constitutional studies at the American Enterprise Institute, in an interview with Yahoo News.
But others in the group opposing McCarthy were pushing to change the way the House operates — “to decentralize power,” Levin said. “I think that’s very important.”
Levin disagrees with the goal of Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, which Levin believes is to move negotiation and lawmaking onto the House floor, away from a highly centralized, top-down process that begins and ends in the speaker’s office. Roy, a former top aide to Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, was a leader of the anti-McCarthy faction in the House.
But Levin agrees that “it is important to take some power away from the leadership.”
The bipartisan select committee on modernizing Congress, which was created by then-Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and chaired by a Democrat, agreed with this assessment in its final report last month.
“Since the 1990s, both parties have centralized power in leadership,” said the final report. “Members of Congress feel increasingly sidelined from the lawmaking process.”
The report said that this disempowerment of rank-and-file members of Congress is one factor pushing some lawmakers to look for other ways to stand out and make their mark.
“And for better or worse, social media and cable news provide an easy outlet for members wanting to make their policy views known,” the report said.
Levin testified to the committee in 2021, and the committee’s final report quoted him extensively. The report drew heavily on Levin’s insight in his 2020 book, “A Time to Build,” that many politicians now come to Washington to engage in “performative conflict” rather than to solve actual problems.
“Over the past few decades, the culture of Congress has arguably changed in ways that make the institution less functional,” read the report.
Levin said that Roy and the other House Republicans who opposed McCarthy through 14 votes over four days, until relenting, want to “create a much more open process on the House floor.”
“I think the House floor is not a place to negotiate. It never has been,” Levin said.
The middle ground, Levin said, is to make committees more central to the process of making laws and solving problems. “We need most of the work of the Congress to happen in the committees and not on the floor, nor in the leadership offices,” he said.
This might also mean that the speaker’s office might need to cede some control over what gets to the House floor for a vote and what doesn’t.
“It would leave members with the sense that what we're doing here in our committee work is actually going to matter. There's actually going to be a vote,” Levin said. “Ninety percent of what happens in the members' committee time just doesn't go anywhere. They work on a bill, the speaker says, ‘Yeah, nice job,’ and then they never hear about it again.”
And second, he said, other “factions” within both parties should actually imitate what the anti-McCarthy side did in the leadership election last week.
“The House Freedom Caucus is not the largest caucus in the Republican conference in the House. Even the moderates — the ‘Tuesday Group’ of moderates, who are basically liberal Republicans — they're just about the same size as the Freedom Caucus,” Levin said.
“It's just they've internalized the sense that making trouble is undemocratic. And that's just nonsense.”
“They should bargain with each other,” he said. “They should make demands. They should say to the speaker, 'If we don't get what we want, we're not going to vote for you.' And that's ultimately how coalition bargaining has to happen. So I think there are lessons in this for both parties that have to involve recognizing that negotiation is what Congress looks like when it's working, not when it's failing.”
Levin clarified that he thinks leadership elections, which are held every two years, are the time to do this, and that the focus should be not on pet projects or personal ambition but on reforming how Congress works — to make it more functional and to better serve the interests of bipartisan cooperation.
“For Congress to work, there has to be a lot of negotiation among people with very different views of what good legislation would look like,” he said.
Levin wrote a New York Times op-ed this week further laying out some of his proposals for reform, which could be taken up by factions in future leadership fights as rallying points.
“I think next time if members think about what they want in advance of this, which didn't happen here, you could have some real constructive change,” he said. “So I think this was more good than bad.”