I had an idea the other day on how to get at least a few things done in our federal government again. It’s going to sound crazy because I don’t think it’s been done before. But I see no reason why it couldn’t be done, if for some reason Nancy Pelosi wants to show she has real balls.
As a preface, let’s recall what the House and the Senate are empowered to do. It would seem that the Senate is the more powerful body, simply because it is empowered to do a lot of things without the consent of the House. For example, the House has no say on what treaties the U.S. signs, or who gets appointed to senior government positions like department secretaries, federal judges or ambassadors. This is because our founding fathers saw the United States as a collection of sovereign states, with Rhode Island having the same stake as California.
What unique powers does the U.S. House of Representative have? Well, they can propose legislation, but so can the Senate. Similar bills that pass both houses of Congress go to a conference committee where both houses haggle out their differences and vote on an identical bill.
But there is one area where the Senate cannot go first: on any bill that appropriates money. The U.S. constitution says funding bills must originate in the House. The Senate can propose amendments to these bills, but they can’t originate one on their own.
Our new progressive House has been passing bills right and left for the Senate to consider. They go to the Senate where Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell makes a show of refusing to take them up. He’s been proudly calling himself “The Grim Reaper.” This includes legislation that would pass easily on a bipartisan basis. One prominent example is legislation forwarded by the House to reimpose FCC net neutrality rules. There is arguably more important bipartisan legislation McConnell simply won’t advance, like protecting our elections from foreign interference or a path to citizenship for so-called “dreamers”.
What Nancy Pelosi could do is simply refuse to forward to the Senate any funding bill for the U.S. government until Mitch McConnell agrees in writing to advance a handful of these bipartisan bills to the Senate floor for an up or down vote.
It’s fair to say that McConnell won’t like this idea at all. But when the legislation is bipartisan it’s a lot harder to say no, particularly when the federal government must be funded. These days, most funding bills are continuing resolutions. These must originate in the House. The House can pass them long before they are needed. Nancy Pelosi though could simply keep them on her desk and refuse to move them to the Senate until she gets a letter in writing from Mitch McConnell that he will move to the floor of the Senate these likely bipartisan bills within a reasonable period of time, say a month.
Yes, Republican senators may start calling her “Shutdown Nancy”. But I bet they would cave because the American people and both parties are by definition in favor of bipartisan legislation. Pelosi and Democrats would look good for at least partially unsticking the levers of governance.
Prove to me I’m wrong, but I believe that the House does have this nuclear option. Given the intransigence in the Senate, I say it’s time to create this new weapon. Once used successfully, the House may find other ways of making government work again.