Yglesias presents a list of reasonable structural changes to the American political system that are currently within the realm of possibility:
— The House shifted in the past from a strict seniority rule for committee chairmanships to one that allows for change (see, e.g., Waxman vs Dingell) and I would like to see them shift in the direction of routine contestation of committee and subcommittee top spots.
— The Senate could and should peacefully effectuate a similar shift.
— The Senate has, in the past, altered the filibuster rule and should do away with it.
— The electoral college is a sick joke and the National Popular Vote movement offers a plausible way to end it.
— As best I can tell, absolutely no rule is preventing states from experimenting with electing their House delegations via proportional representation.
— The District of Columbia ought to be a state, and nothing is stopping the current Democratic congressional majorities from admitting us as one.
— There’s no practical way to get rid of the Senate, but we can at least try to have a public political culture that acknowledges that it’s an unfair and anachronistic system.
Apart from proportional representation – which if implemented badly, which God only knows it would be, could result in ugly Israel-style coalition majorities – and the last point, which isn’t really something one can “implement”, I think these are all great ideas. But the first two raise a more interesting question. The very existence of the Congressional committee system is not set in stone. Congress can repeal it whenever it damn well pleases. So: should it?
I’m hard-pressed to think of reasons why not. The same things that can lead to committee members gaining expertise and their votes becoming a useful wheat/chafe separation mechanism also lead to much more centralized corruption and big-money politicking, as well as plain old dangerous concentrations of power, as we see with Max Baucus. Even most of the expertise generated lies more with members’ staffs, the selection and ideological leaning of which are determined by those aforementioned money-tainted processes. These problems seem pretty endemic to how the current committee system is currently constituted, and won’t go away until it does.
The question, then, is if we should either (a) just abolish all committees and let every bill go directly to the House/Senate floor or (b) give the majority total authority in deciding that. Maybe; the latter option especially seems fairly unobjectionable, and works quite well in parliamentary settings. The only other option that seems workable is (c) to make committee membership rotate every two years or so, and within that have chairmanships rotate on a monthly basis or so. The main advantage this would have would be to dilute the majority’s real authority, and just confuse the hell out of attempts of lobbying firms to both hire staffers of important committee chairs and to lobby existing members. PhRMA, say, wouldn’t even be able to hire the House speaker’s former chief of staff and expect to get a bill on the floor, as would be the case in the quasi-parliamentary system outlined above.
So yeah, I think (c) is the best of these. But the broader point is that committees aren’t set in stone, and we should think seriously about altering how they’re constituted and/or whether they exist.