2021年7月24日 星期六

What if we shook up the power structure in Congress?

Taking a closer look at the House of Representatives.
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By Jamelle Bouie

Opinion Columnist

This summer, The New York Times's Opinion section is running a series on institutional reform of American democracy, focused on "bold ideas to revitalize and renew the American experiment." The most recent installment is on extending the term of House members to four years from two, a reform that would lessen the pressures of constant campaigning and make the chamber more conducive to governing.

I am not actually sure that I agree with this assessment or that it would have an especially big impact on the quality of governance. But I do like that the author, Richard H. Pildes, a professor of constitutional law at N.Y.U., focused his attention on the House of Representatives.

The House gets short shrift in most discussions of institutional reform. Some of this is because the most glaring problems are with the Senate, and the presidency, and the courts. But some of it, I think, is because the House gets short shrift in general, treated as the lesser of the two chambers of Congress, despite the fact that it was designed to be the dominant actor in Congress and held that role through most of the 19th century.

Many of the greatest and most memorable lawmakers of that century — men such as Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, Thaddeus Stevens and John Bingham — were members of the House. The speakership of the House has always been a powerful position, but in the hands of men like James G. Blaine (from 1869 to 1875) and Thomas Bracket Reed (from 1895 to 1899), it became the center of action in American government — the real seat of power.

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The primacy of the House of Representatives made sense. After establishing the Congress, the Constitution puts the House first, before the Senate. And not only does it have the "power of the purse," but also for much of American history it was the only chamber with a direct connection to the electorate, giving it a democratic imprimatur that most of the government lacked. Until ratification of the 17th Amendment in 1913, senators were chosen by state legislatures, not elected by voters.

I think there is a case to make that American government would function better if the House were made stronger and more representative. Longer terms, a larger membership and more staff would go a long way toward improving the House. But if we are talking long-shot, major reforms, then the one I have in mind is simple, if a little radical: make the House the primary legislative body. We would accomplish this with a law that required the Senate to take up House legislation and submit it to a vote that would be decided by a majority, barring a supermajority vote to hold the legislation for revision and debate. If the Senate votes to hold the legislation but does not act on it within a specified time frame, then that legislation is deemed passed.

The idea is that it is fine, even preferable, for the Senate to continue its lead role as an oversight body for the executive branch, with control over treaties, appointments and the most consequential parts of the impeachment process. That, in fact, is in line with what James Madison and other founders envisioned at the Constitutional Convention in 1787. But the Senate should not be able to freeze the government through inaction, and the House should have the lead role in drafting and passing legislation.

You could make this change without amending the Constitution because it doesn't actually infringe on any of the constitutionally designated powers of the Senate. All it would take, as I said, is a law.

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Is this extremely unlikely? Yes. But I think it's worth considering, if only to take seriously the problems that arise when the House loses its pride of place within the constitutional system.

What I Wrote

I had something of a brain freeze this week so I only managed to write one column. It is on the president's commission on Supreme Court reform, which may not have a direct impact on actual policy but has been a valuable forum for some pretty important ideas that I think the public should hear:

Supreme Court reform is not on the horizon. There is no popular movement to reshape the institution, and too many on the elite end — on both sides of the political divide — are too invested in the status quo. But this commission, for whatever its worth, has opened a space within the political mainstream for serious consideration of major reform to the federal judiciary. It may not mean much now, but change has to begin somewhere.

I also did a live chat on Twitter where I discussed a few recent columns and also spoke about, among other things, my weight lifting routine.

Now Reading

I'm going to call this week's reading list "The American Prospect edition" because all of the pieces are by former colleagues of mine at the magazine.

Mark Schmitt on the success of the American left in Democracy Journal.

Monica Potts on the pandemic in Arkansas for The Atlantic.

Clare Malone on the Ohio Senate primary in The Atlantic.

Tim Fernholz on Jeff Bezos's trip to low-Earth orbit in Quartz.

Bob Moser on Joe Biden and voting rights for Rolling Stone.

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Feedback If you're enjoying what you're reading, please consider recommending it to your friends. They can sign up here. If you want to share your thoughts on an item in this week's newsletter or on the newsletter in general, please email me at jamelle-newsletter@nytimes.com. You can follow me on Twitter (@jbouie) and Instagram.

Photo of the Week

Jamelle Bouie

Earlier this month — and after much conflict and tragedy — Charlottesville, Va., finally removed its Confederate monuments. I was there, along with a small crowd of observers and reporters, for the Robert E. Lee statue removal, and I took a few pictures to mark the event. You would think that it was a celebratory occasion, but it was more somber than anything else. Although many people worked to make it happen, I think most of the credit should go to Zyahna Bryant, a young woman who as a teenager started the petition to have Lee's statue removed from the city. The day belonged to her as much as anyone.

Now Eating: Pasta With Zucchini, Corn and Tomatoes

I have been eating some version of this pasta every summer for the past 15 years. It is a permanent part of my cooking repertoire, a throwback to when the only cookbook I owned was a (now well-worn) copy of Mark Bittman's "How to Cook Everything." I've made two changes to the recipe over the years. First, I use a food mill to purée the tomatoes — it helps make for a saucier sauce. Second, I add a little protein to the mix, like fresh mozzarella or tinned fish. Be sure to grab the best produce you can find for this, but don't worry as much about the pasta shape — anything will do. This version of the recipe comes from Bittman via The New York Times's Cooking section.

Ingredients

  • Salt and pepper
  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, or 2 tablespoons oil and 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1 cup corn kernels (from 2 or 3 ears)
  • 1 cup diced zucchini or summer squash (from 2 or 3 small vegetables)
  • 1 medium onion or 3 or 4 shallots, diced
  • 3 cloves minced garlic (optional)
  • 3 or 4 leaves of basil, sliced
  • 4 plum or 2 large tomatoes, diced
  • 1 pound cut pasta, like penne

Directions

Set a large pot of water to boil and salt it. Put 2 tablespoons oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat and add corn. Cook, stirring occasionally, until corn begins to brown, 8 to 10 minutes. Add zucchini and some salt and pepper. Cook another 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until zucchini begins to brown.

Add onion or shallots and garlic if you are using it. Cook, stirring occasionally, until onion softens, about 5 minutes. Add basil and cook for 30 seconds, then tomatoes. Put pasta in boiling water and cook until tender but not mushy, 10 to 15 minutes.

While pasta cooks, continue to cook sauce, reducing heat when tomatoes begin to break down. If sauce dries out, add some pasta cooking water, about ½ cup at a time. When pasta is done, drain it, toss with sauce and remaining oil or butter, and serve immediately.

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