The 115th Must Be a Reform Congress

The 115th Must Be a Reform Congress
AP Photo/Alex Brandon

The clock is ticking on a continuing resolution to keep the government running past December 9. Congress is currently negotiating a spending package that will not only fund federal agencies, but also contain priorities from members of Congress. The question for Congress is how long to extend the measure. Republicans want it to last through the spring so that the Senate can focus on confirming President-elect Donald Trump’s cabinet and agency nominees; Democrats prefer something shorter. The American people, meanwhile, wonder why Congress can’t pass a budget on time. 

The continuing resolution — and all the unrelated items that will hitch a ride on it — represents a failed budget process. This is the kind of thing the voters were rejecting when they sent Donald Trump to the White House. The American people think of one word when they look at Washington: broken. 

But this presents a paradox. If voters went for Trump because they are so fed up with the federal government, why did they also return the vast majority of incumbents in Congress who stood for re-election and fail to change control of either chamber? 

Perhaps voters decided that a Republican majority in Congress would be best suited to help President-elect Donald Trump, the anti-establishment candidate, accomplish his goals. If so, voters did not return members of Congress just to maintain the status quo, but, rather, to champion change. That would create a real opportunity for Congress to claim a mandate to reform Washington — to make it work again for the American people.

The 115th Congress must be a reform Congress. Members are elected to legislate, not merely to vote on what their leaders negotiate with the president. As Paul Ryan said after being elected Speaker in 2015: The American voter needs a Congress in which his or her “elected representative actually has a say-so and a voice in the process.” 

As if to heed Ryan’s call, House Budget Committee Chairman Tom Price — who was recently nominated by Trump to be the new Secretary of Health and Human Services — recently unveiled a series of budget reforms designed to update and modernize the Budget Act of 1974. That law requires Congress to enact 12 annual stand-alone spending bills — something that hasn’t been done on time since 1994. Instead, Congress has relied on continuing resolutions and omnibus appropriation bills in order to avoid government shutdowns. The failure to enact the individual authorization and spending bills means that Congress has very little control of how the money is being spent and that wasteful and useless programs remain on the books. This, in turn, makes both the executive and legislative branches unaccountable to the taxpayers who foot the bills, undermining lawmakers’ credibility with their constituents. Reforming the budget process so that it works without gimmicks and stop-gap measures would be a tremendous legacy for Chairman Price. 

Yet, budget reform, though essential, will not, by itself, heal what ails Congress. Congress must reconsider the laws, rules, and even party caucus procedures that make it difficult for members to represent their constituents, leading to frustrating and non-productive partisan polarization.

That can start with the formation of a Joint Committee on Congressional reform — a bipartisan, bicameral committee with the authority to recommend changes to operating procedures designed to open up the legislative process. Such a committee could, for example, recommend that the federal government switch to a biennial budget so that spending limits are established one year leaving lawmakers to perform critical oversight the next year. This would reinforce to federal agencies that Congress, not the administration, controls the power of the purse. 

At issue is not mere inefficiency. Gridlock in our Congress will continue to result in the transfer of legislative authority, guaranteed to Congress by the Constitution, to a power-grabbing executive branch.

President-elect Trump told the American people he would “drain the swamp.” Congress can kick-start the process by reforming itself so that it is more accountable to the people. In doing so, Congress will address important issues that have been held hostage to polarization and gridlock.

Lawmakers have a chance to show the country that they understand the anger and the frustration expressed on Election Day. When Illinois Congressmen Darin LaHood and Dan Lipinski re-introduce their bipartisan resolution to create a Joint Committee, every Representative should jump at the chance to co-sponsor it, signaling to their constituents that they choose to be part of the great reform 115th Congress.

Mark Strand is president of the Congressional Institute. 

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