A Simple Cure for House Chaos

As I’ve watched this week’s removal of McCarthy from the Speakership and the ensuing sense that the House may be ungovernable because of the fragmentation within its Republican conference, I return to the idea that I first advocated shortly after the January 6 insurrection: a simple statute requiring majority, rather than plurality, winners for congressional seats.

In the deep-red districts that produce members of Congress like Matt Gaetz, along with the others who joined his motion to vacate the Speakership and who keep the chamber from being functional, a simple majority-winner requirement potentially could make a big difference. A conservative candidate who was not as extreme as Gaetz or his cohort of ultra-extremists would not need to win a Republican primary in this kind of deep-red district in order to be competitive in the general election. Indeed, this less-extreme conservative would need only to come in second in the general election (in terms of first-choice preferences among the voters) in order to force some sort of runoff, “instant” or traditional, and then add support from voters whose first choice was a Democrat (or other further left candidate) in order to win the runoff. The deep red district would still get a very conservative Representative in the House, aligned with the preferences of the district’s median voter–but it wouldn’t be an ultra-extremist like Gaetz who is even further to the right of the district’s median voter but wins the plurality-winner general election after winning the GOP primary. Because there is no way to force a runoff (again, instant or traditional) in a plurality-winner system, it is useless for the less extreme conservative who better represents the district’s median voter to run in the general election. The voters are then faced with the choice between the ultra-extremist (like Gaetz) and a Democrat (or someone else too far to the left for the district’s median voter), and so the ultra-extremist goes to Congress instead of the less-extreme conservative whom the district voters actually would prefer.

A simple majority-winner requirement would let states decide for themselves how best to implement it. They could chose the kind of “top 2” system that California and Washington State use. They could also embrace Alaska’s new “top 4” system that uses an instant runoff in its general election, or the “final 5” variation on that same system, as Nevada may do if the reform measure its voters approved last year gets a second vote of approval as required by the state’s constitution. Or states could experiment with other innovative forms of Ranked Choice Voting that arguably are even more effective at combatting polarization and extremism than the particular “instant runoff” procedure that Alaska employs.

But whatever particular form of a majority-winner system that a state adopted, it would eliminate the critical defect of the existing plurality-winner system and enable less extreme candidates have a fighting chance in the general election.

To be sure, states can enact a majority-winner system for congressional seats on their own, without a congressional mandate. That, after all, is what the above-mentioned states like California, Washington, and Alaska have done. And given the current dysfunctional nature of Congress itself, it would seem foolish (or at least naive) to expect Congress to enact even a simply remedy that would ameliorate its own dire condition.

Still, it’s worth contemplating the idea of a discharge petition in the House, supported by Democrats and those nervous Republicans who represent districts that Biden won, requiring a vote in the House on a super-simple, one-page statute (see the example on page 399 of this law review article) that would mandate majority-winner elections for congressional seats. (Maybe even if the Speakership remains vacant long enough, interpretation of House rules would permit the Speaker pro temp to entertain a discharge petition of this type.) Even just having a debate on this proposal would focus attention on the best way to get out of the mess that the House currently is in. And who knows, if the Senate picked up the idea as well, it is the kind of reform–because it permits such wide variation of choices for states to adopt–that conceivably could reach the 60-vote threshold for cloture there.

When Americans focus on the distinction between majority and mere plurality winner rules, they understand why it’s desirable to require a majority rather than just a plurality in order to win an election. If it were possible to have a meaningful debate in Congress itself on the desirability of this simple proposal, it is likely that it could gain traction.

The current crisis is so severe, it seems an idea worth considering rather than giving up as hopeless.

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