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Let’s assume for the sake of argument that Matt Gaetz is not serious. At all. About anything.
I don’t happen to believe that’s the case, but I can understand why somebody would. But I don’t think it matters. It doesn’t matter, because he’s now the equivalent of a free radical bouncing around the molecular structure of Congress, and nobody quite knows how the drama currently unfolding will end. Including Gaetz, as he conceded even before he launched his successful putsch against Kevin McCarthy, rendering the House speakerless since Tuesday.
On Wednesday, taking Gaetz’s grievances about the way the House is run seriously, Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna proposed a series of reforms that would reduce the power of big money in politics, ban stock trading by members of Congress, and democratize the functioning of the House.
On Thursday, Gaetz responded: “Ok. Let’s negotiate.”
Gaetz noted that his GOP colleagues want to change the rules around the “motion to vacate,” which was the procedural tool he used to oust McCarthy. His colleagues don’t want a small handful of renegades to have that much leverage, so they want to require a higher number of members for the motion to be able to be brought up for a vote. “If we enact the reforms @RepRoKhanna lays out here,” Gaetz tweeted, “how high would you like the MTV threshold to be? Because I’ll basically give you whatever you want on the MTV for this stuff.”
So what is this stuff?
Khanna laid out a five-point program:
- Ban money from lobbyists and political actions committees to congressional candidates
- Ban members of Congress from trading stocks and from ever becoming lobbyists
- Term limits for members of Congress
- Term limits for Supreme Court justices
- An ethics code for Supreme Court justices
The first objection from Democrats about Gaetz’s offer to implement these ideas in exchange for handing over his MTV weapon is that the stuff could never pass and he isn’t serious. But it doesn’t matter if he’s serious: He and his small crew of Republicans teamed up with Democrats to oust McCarthy. There is quite literally, and quite seriously, nothing stopping them from doing the same to reform the House rules.
Some immediate objections arise, of course. When I floated some of this on what’s left of Twitter, Chris Hayes noted, “You can’t do a term limit without a constitutional amendment so it’s a non starter.” He is correct that constitutional scholars agree that term limits would require an amendment.
And I’d go further than Hayes and say term limits are an actively bad idea. They’re the kind of thing that’s appealing as a last resort to an enormously frustrated electorate, but it’s merely nostalgia for a citizen legislature that never existed, where yeomen farmers would serve their country in Congress and then return to the fields. In reality, in states with term limits, politicians just race up the ladder as fast as possible and then when they’re termed out, they cash in as lobbyists. It makes the swamp swampier rather than draining it.
But some of the other reforms go the opposite direction and turn public service back toward what it ought to be: serving the public rather than enriching oneself or one’s corporate backers. In response to Hayes, Khanna noted — in apparent acknowledgement of the constitutional hurdles — that his main bullet points are the ban on lobbying by members of Congress and the ban on contributions by PACs and lobbyists. He noted that the Supreme Court term limits would be constitutional, though the justices would have to be given seats on a lower court. The ban on stock trading would also be warmly met by the public.
Knowing our Supreme Court, anything could be ruled unconstitutional, and those reforms, if passed, could be challenged, too — but it’s still a fight worth having. Make the justices overturn immensely popular ethics reforms while facing their own ethics scandal.
And even if some of these reforms wouldn’t make it through the Senate, they could be written into the House rules in such a way that they’d have a deterrent effect.
Gaetz’s unprecedented ouster of a speaker has produced a rare moment in Washington in which nobody can truly be certain how it ends. The key part of his response was “let’s negotiate.” Term limits are counterproductive? Fine, ditch those and come up with something new to suggest — like, say, a requirement that the president get congressional authorization before deploying troops overseas. Republicans want to reform the rules to change the way you can boot a speaker. So while they have the hood up, let’s see what else we can do to that engine.
Gaetz, at least, is continuing to negotiate. This evening, he responded to Hayes’s response to my post, saying:
Things in Khanna-Gaetz that can happen merely by changing House Rules:
– Ban lobbyist and PAC donations to members
– Lobbyist/Foreign Agent Registration Ban for former members
– Ban Congressional Stock Trading
– Increase MTV threshold
– Single Subject Spending Bills requirement
Most of that is self-explanatory, but “single subject spending bills requirement” was the bone he picked with McCarthy, complaining that the House hadn’t passed all 12 of its appropriations bills. Insisting the House does so is reasonable, and could also be overcome by suspending the rules to avert a shutdown, which requires two-thirds of the House. But if Gaetz thinks Congress can work the way it used to and pass spending bills one by one rather than lumping them all together, let him try.
Republicans plan to return next week to elect a new speaker — and even Donald Trump is threatening to go to Capitol Hill to see whether he wants the job.
Even if Democrats aren’t serious about seeing any of Khanna’s reforms make it into the rules or into law, they could at least behave cynically. Both parties are good at that, after all. Democrats who are so sure Gaetz and his gang are faking their offer to negotiate have nothing to lose by taking them up on it and making them walk away publicly. Let the Republicans kill the reforms that poll at 90 percent. And if, by cynically supporting these ideas in hopes of making Republicans look bad, Democrats accidentally turn them into law, oh well. We won’t tell anybody they never meant it to happen.