Creating the Congress America Deserves
Congress barely functioned even before Republicans and Democrats dug in on whether a Supreme Court nominee would get a fair hearing in the Senate. Republicans don't want President Obama to tip the ideological makeup of the Court, while Democrats are gleefully painting conservatives as obstructionists. This partisan warfare is playing out in media outlets across the country, and congressional approval ratings could dive into the single digits again. It won't take much to get there.
To recover its vitality and esteem, Congress must change significantly. The first step should be to create a bipartisan Joint Committee on Congressional Reform with the authority to propose revisions to the rules, procedures, and structures of Congress.
This idea is not new. In fact, two of the most significant overhauls — the Legislative Reorganization Acts of 1946 and 1970 — came from joint committees. These acts reshaped crucial aspects of the legislative process, like the committee system, staffing, and floor procedures. They promoted qualities that virtually all members and constituents value, like efficiency, openness, and transparency. In other words, past reform committees were crucial to the development of Congress.
Joint committees can be successful even when they don't result in immediate reform. When the last joint committee published its final report in December 1993, the Democratic majority made only modest changes to congressional operations. However, when the Republicans took the House in 1995, they adopted a number of the committee's suggestions, such as explicitly recognizing the minority party's right to offer a motion to recommit with instructions, which is the minority's last chance to amend a bill before passage on the House floor. According to the Congressional Research Service, the reform committee's "list of suggested reforms reads like a description of the structure and working of the contemporary House of Representatives." There are plenty of ideas from other reform committees that resurfaced later.
In addition to getting Congress back to work, a Joint Committee on Congressional Reform would restore people's faith in the institution. According to a recent Rasmussen poll, not only does 60 percent of the country believe Congress is doing a poor job, but 61 percent believe it is "likely" that their own representative has sold his or her vote for cash or campaign contributions.
It's one thing to think your congressional representative is a political hack; it's a whole new level of dissatisfaction to believe them to be corrupt. While those of us who work with the men and women of Congress know that vote-selling is extremely rare, such a low public perception is all the more reason to establish a joint committee now.
A joint committee should not start with a predetermined set of reforms; rather, it should encourage bipartisan cooperation to identify potential improvements. Its goals should include improving the broken budget process, restoring "regular order" on the floor so that all members can legislate instead of leadership in either party dictating the course of legislation, and starting to devolve power from the party leadership and back toward the committees, where members have a real opportunity to participate in crafting a bill.
Veteran and former members of Congress can provide crucial insights, but they are not the only sources for ideas. Those inside and outside Congress have already suggested dozens of serious reform proposals. We at the Congressional Institute have compiled some of the most significant ones for Congress to start with.
If Congress forms a Joint Committee on Congressional Reform now, it will have created a rare opportunity for itself. It will be known as one of the few Congresses that dedicated themselves to institutional reform. Given the way things are going, it has little to lose and much to gain. It might even create the Congress America needs — and deserves.
Mark Strand is the president of the Congressional Institute. Find more on the Congressional Reform Project here.