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Coming House GOP Majority Wants to Chat About Structure

BY Nancy Scola | Friday, November 5 2010

The banner of "House GOP Office of Majority Transistion," the coming Republican Majority in the U.S. House of Representatives has gone live with a website that puts front and center a call for the public to participate in something that, in the video above, transition chair Rep. Greg Walden of Oregon says contributed to Tuesday's election upheaval: "a broken structure in the Congress itself."

And in a note on the site, Walden goes on: "Leader Boehner has pledged to run the House differently than it has been run by both Democrats and Republicans in the past -- with respect for the American people, their intelligence, and their will. Central to that pledge is continuing to involve your ideas and input." The new House GOP site asks for videos and text comments in response.

Now, Republicans for some time have been hammering hard on the idea that a new majority, run by them, would indeed mean greater openness about the processes of governing and more opportunities for the public to engage in those processes: three-day postings of bills online before votes, focusing on narrowly-tailored issue specific bills rather than behemoth legislative packages, footnoting legislative drafts for constitutionality before they go any further. To be reductive about it, it's an information management approach to the act of governing, of the sort that at northern Virginia consulting shop would advocate for in any context. But there's bigger implications for democracy, at least in theory: by streamlining and documenting the operations of the House of Representatives, you both make it easier to simply track what goes on there but also up the possibility that channels can be created for the public to engage in them meaningfully. It's tough for outsiders to participate in a secretive mess.

Before the election, that sort of thing could be written off as all talk by a powerless minority -- grandstanding meant to make the Democratic Majority look bad (see Republican Whip Eric Cantor's YouCut) or gimmickry meant to glorify the GOP as uber tech-savvy and of the moment (see the collaborative "America Speaking Out" process). But it's a new world now. Republicans are ascendant in the lower chamber, and yet they're only talking more loudly about this sort of thing. John Boehner's piece in the Wall Street Journal today pivoted on these ideas, and there's really nothing else on the House GOP's transition website other than a call for participatory reform of the way the House does its business.

Of course, history encourages skepticism here. The House GOP's plan to reinvent government wouldn't be the first reformist grand vision that turns out to be far hollower in its practice than in its presentation. The Obama administration had its own Change.gov transition site, a site that -- with its online call for job applicants and its "Citizens Briefing Book" project, and more -- hinted an a historic structural reform of the executive branch. And, after the high-water mark of President Obama's announcement of his Open Government Directive, reactions to how well he and his team have done on this front have been, unfairly or not, decidedly mixed. But Boehner and crew actually have a far easier task ahead of them, if they're serious. All they have to rework is one body, not an entire sprawling branch of government made up of more than a dozen strong-headed agencies. And it's one institution that runs operationally more or less like a dictatorship, or at least an oligarchy. There's much that a new House Republican majority can do there.

It will be intriguing to watch whether, and how, they do it. It's also going to be intriguing to see whether fault lines develop in the minds of progressives who are both horrified by the notion of yet another Republican majority in the House but who are inspired by the idea that there's simply a better way to run a U.S. House of Representatives in the year 2011 and beyond.

The coming House Republican leadership is making a lot of noise about bringing in a new era of openness and collaboration, one that reinvents the relationship between the institution and the people its supposed to serve. Whether it's just that, a lot of noise, or whether it really represents a new opening for a new way of running Capitol Hill -- well, that's going to be one of the more major questions to track in the months to come.

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