The R Street Institute this month launched the Governance Project, an effort to assess and improve the state of America’s system of national self-governance, with particular attention to Congress.
The need for such inquiry should be obvious: our federal republic is showing signs of dyspepsia, if not outright dysfunction. National public policy issues, such as immigration reform, remain in a perpetual state of deadlock. Various government agencies, such as the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, the Internal Revenue Service, and the Department of Defense have been exposed with scandals and management failures. The national economy also continues to sputter while the nation’s debts and deficits remain extraordinarily high.
Why focus on Congress? To be certain, there are a variety of non-congressional factors that might be investigated for their relationship to America’s current governance problems. Single-member voting districts, “too much money in politics,” political polarization and politicians’ bad intentions are just a few of the causes commonly fingered.
We contend that focusing on Congress makes the most sense. The U.S. Constitution assigns Congress the most fundamental powers of governance, such as establishing currency and fixing its value, regulating economic activity among the states and with other nations, declaring war, taxing the public and spending those funds. The Governance Project will take an institutional approach to the problem, focusing on how Congress does what it does.
The signs that Congress is struggling to fulfill its duties are plentiful. Once again, a president is poised to engage America in a war without congressional authorization. Key posts in the executive and judicial branch go unfilled because nominees languish in the Senate. Precious congressional time is squandered on political posturing rather than lawmaking. And Congress itself only appears for work at the Capitol a few days per week, and went out of session in mid-September to run for office.
Unsurprisingly, the public holds Congress in historically abysmal regard: only 14 percent of the public currently approve of Congress’s performance.
The good news is that Congress can repair itself. Per the Constitution, the House and Senate each may “determine the rules of its proceedings.” Congress may enact a statute to structure its operations as a whole, which is something it has done in the past.
Accordingly, the Governance Project will examine some of the ways current congressional practices and rules affect its ability to govern. Topics that might be taken up include: are current Senate rules regarding, say, non-germane amendments, in need of change? Do the 1970 Legislative Reorganization Act or 1974 Congressional Budget Act need to be revised? How can current congressional actions to oversee and upgrade the operations of the federal government be improved? Can parties and organizations within Congress improve its governance? And, more fundamentally, what are the roles of Congress and individual legislators in 21st-century America?
To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, we have a republic…if we can keep it. Congress, the first branch of government, is the center of that system. The nation’s well-being requires a well-functioning national legislature, and the Governance Project aims to help Congress to help itself.