This week, the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC), where I am a senior fellow, convened an event at the U.S. Capitol focused on strengthening Congress’s capacity to legislate effectively.
The overwhelming message was that the challenge is great, but we must not relinquish hope and there are those within Congress itself who recognize the importance of reform. In fact, two speakers at the gathering are current members of Congress who have just introduced legislation establishing a joint House-Senate committee to recommend changes to congressional rules and procedure.
I have written in the past that the BPC’s Commission on Political Reform, which I co-chair, issued a number of key recommendations designed to make Congress work once again. As BPC’s Democracy Project Director, John Fortier, and BPC Fellow Don Wolfensberger (a former Chief of Staff of the U.S. House Rules Committee) discussed at the event, some of the more critical recommendations centered on longer workweeks in Congress, re-empowering the congressional committees, and a more open amendment process in the committees and on the floor of the House and Senate – which Fortier described as critical to allowing both sides to have input and “not just a nicety.”
As they explained, most of these measures would not even require formal rules or statutory changes, but rather more informal steps that could be taken by each chamber – in Wolfensberger’s words, “really a matter of cultural changes.” Yet, how is Congress measuring up against our recommended measures?
Both Fortier and Wolfensberger described how BPC’s latest Healthy Congress Index (covering the last three months of 2016) revealed that the number of days in session remained largely the same compared to recent congresses (and well short of our recommendations) but more bills were reported through committees. In the Senate, there was a significant uptick in the number of amendments offered but increased use of the filibuster and, in the House, there was an escalated trend of not allowing amendments on the floor.
In short, there was limited progress in certain areas, while the status quo or worse prevailed in others. And that is not a recipe for substantive progress. In April, BPC will release a new Healthy Congress Index evaluating the first three months of this new Congress.
So what is the path forward? One major step would be for the House to pass a resolution authored by two of the speakers on BPC’s second panel — Representatives Darin LaHood (R-IL) and Daniel Lipinski (D-IL) — that would provide a bipartisan mechanism for Congress to evaluate and ultimately recommend measures to change the way in which Congress functions.
The resolution, H.Con.Res. 28, would establish a “Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress.” It would be comprised of 12 members of the House evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, and likewise for the Senate. The Committee would report its recommendations to each chamber, with the aspiration that each body would vote on them. Goals of the measure include:
- Making the operations and organization of the Congress more effective and more efficient
- Making the Congress and its members more accountable to the citizens they serve
- Improving the relationships between the Houses of Congress
- Improving the orderly, timely and effective consideration of legislation
- Improving particularly relationships between the minority and majority party Members
- Improving the relationship between members and the citizens they serve, especially in the opportunities citizens have to participate in the process of governing
As Representative LaHood stated, this is not a new idea. Joint committees have been utilized three times before in the last century, and some of their recommendations were implemented. Rep. LaHood expressed that there is a litany of reasons why Congress has not been efficient, effective and accountable – and therefore Congress requires a mechanism and a single means to debate the numerous, potential solutions.
Rep. Lipinski, a former political scientist, observed that everyone understands Congress is broken and “not set up to function well,” so it is vital they garner input not only from lawmakers but also the American people on actions that could be taken to turn the tide. Under the resolution, solutions will not be dictated up front but rather culled from a wide variety of sources on a non-partisan basis.
Currently, the resolution has 50 cosponsors, which is a good beginning. But it requires an additional 167 to attain a majority of the House. What is required now, as Congressman Lipinski stated, is a “grassroots fire burning on this” – and I couldn’t agree more. There was broad agreement at the event that many members of Congress are themselves frustrated with the lack of opportunity to have an impact beyond simply voting on the floor, given how Congress operates today. With further incentives from constituents demanding movement on this measure, the potential for passage would become very real.
I would encourage everyone to contact their representatives as soon as possible, to urge them to co-sponsor this legislation. It is not a magic wand and will not cure all that ails Congress, but it would provide an indispensable process for distilling the best, bipartisan ideas for reforms and a rallying point for creating momentum and pressure for real change. To quote Representative LaHood, “Like with any institution, you have to reform it from time to time.” That time has unquestionably arrived for the United States Congress.