In the US House, Insider Money Buys Leadership Positions

The US House of Representatives is not a meritocracy. And that’s a shame.

House “leadership” doesn’t actually have anything to do with leadership. It has everything to do with money.

In a story about the fall from power of Nancy Pelosi, Michael Barone describes how the House leadership process evolved from seniority to raw cash.

For years, liberal Democrats had decried the seniority system, which automatically made conservative Southerners (and/or senile members) committee chairmen. There they could and did block liberal measures from coming to the floor.

After the big Democratic victory in the 1974 election, Democratic leaders conceded that the caucus could vote on chairmanships if a sufficient number of members signed petitions for such a vote.

That was the first move. Before 1974, leadership went, pretty much, by seniority. The way to rise to the top in the House was to hang around a long time.

Then, another change gave us the current system of producing “leaders.”

After their big victory in the 1994 election, House Republicans, led by Newt Gingrich, instituted a similar procedure.

Chairmen would be determined by the Republican Steering Committee, on which party leaders had a major share of the votes, and there would be a six-year term limit (occasionally waived) on chairmen.

Another result: Members compete for elective chairmanships by raising money for colleagues, largely from Washington insiders.

That is, the reforms make the House more accountable to voters than the seniority system, but also more responsive to lobbyists.

If you’re wondering how Ann Wagner rose so quickly to House leadership, now you know. She used her insider status with the biggest donors to buy her place.

One way she did that: Export Import Bank and Boeing. Being in a safe seat, Mrs. Wagner was free to raise money for other Republican House candidates. At the same time, Boeing wanted to rescue its crony Ex-Im Banking system from a conservative attack.

After months of silence on the Export-Import Bank, Ann finally gave Ex-Im a strong endorsement and a commitment to defend the crony operation against all enemies, foreign and domestic.

The GOP could go a long way toward limiting the influence of lobbyists and crony capitalists by reverting back to the post-1974 Democrat rules. Just let the whole caucus vote on leadership.