Forging Forward With a Nod to the Past

There is someone new in charge of the House.

This isn’t just any house. The House of Representatives, or the “People’s House,” is the body of government considered closest to the people. Because there are many more representatives in the House than senators in the Senate (therefore, in most cases, representing a smaller electorate), and because they have to face voters every two years (instead of six), House representatives have a certain connection with voters that is not shared by other politicians.

It is important to recognize the unique functions each of the legislative bodies is supposed to have, and how they are supposed to operate.

There is an apocryphal story that has Thomas Jefferson and George Washington sitting down for a talk after Jefferson returned from France. Jefferson voiced his disproval to Washington for agreeing to a bicameral legislature, questioning what need there was for two houses.

“Why did you pour that coffee into the saucer?” asked Washington.

“To cool it,” Jefferson answered.

“Even so,” responded Washington, “we pour legislation into the senatorial saucer to cool it.”

The story is used to illustrate the need for a Senate to cool down the legislation which comes in via the House, but it isn’t often used to explain the need for the House itself. But the truth is that the House is supposed to be a laboratory of “scalding hot” legislation, all of which makes it way to the Senate, which then is supposed to decide which bills to codify as law.

Utah’s Senator Mike Lee makes this point in his recent book, when he explains that the Origination Clause (which stipulates that all spending bills originate from the House and not the Senate) was directly tied to the decision to establish a bicameral legislature in the Connecticut Compromise of 1787. The only way to make the larger states feel they were getting something out of the deal was by making the body most representative of the people retain control over what most affects the people — spending their money.

However, years of Congress finding loopholes around what it could not do have blurred the purposes of the two houses to the point where only students of history know what it is that each is supposed to do. Other than proportional representation and shorter terms, few people can say what sets the lower chamber apart from the upper one.

The new Speaker aims to change that.

Paul Ryan was swept into an office he did not seek and, thus, wields a power his predecessors never had. Ryan promises a “new day” in the House, with a more open process, wherein the members — not the leadership — write the legislation, thereby returning its powers to the people. (He’s gotten off to a flying start; the first four days saw more amendments debated than did the previous four months combined.)

Ryan isn’t just good for those who care about the historic function of the House. His ascension to Speaker means more good legislation will be considered and, thus, have a better chance of making it through the Senate and becoming law. Although John Boehner wasn’t the tyrannical ruler of the house Nancy Pelosi was before him, he still ran things from the top down. If he didn’t want something considered, it never made it to the floor. Now, if even a small faction wants something taken up, it must be considered. Think of the implications this might have for something like a federal bill for school choice.

I am, however, always kind of confused when I hear people voice concerns about the policies Ryan advocates as a champion of entitlement reform. They say it would have a negative impact on the people in our community who need the help currently afforded them by government programs, and who could not do without it. Conservative politicians, they say, would cut them off, leaving them with no means of providing for their families.

But this is not true. Ryan is not a neo-libertarian conservative; he is a disciple of Jack Kemp, who famously championed helping the less fortunate — so much so that even The New York Times had to concede that Kemp “brought more zeal to America’s poverty problems than any national politician since Robert Kennedy.” And Ryan, keeping in step with his mentor, has begun to push a different method of fighting a “war on poverty.”

That things need to change should go without saying. The United States currently spends around $800 billion on 92 federal antipoverty programs without making a discernible difference. Is there value in a government program that encourages more and more dependency? If this unhealthy attitude of needing the government to provide for people has entered into our way of thinking as an ideal, it’s only another sign as to how unhealthy dependency actually is. Everyone knows that the highest level of tzedakah (Rambam, Matnas Aniyim 10:7) is not providing someone with a food stamp card, but providing him or her with the ability to be self-sufficient.

Those who can’t work, should (and would) be provided for. But I would challenge any well-meaning skeptic of Ryan’s who defends the status quo to answer why they think it is “worth it” or “better” for those in our community who rely on entitlements to get a defined government benefit, than for the government to help them grow their own wealth. Whatever their source for that way of thinking is, it hardly has its basis in how we are meant to think.