Early this month, on the opening day of the 116th Congress, something unusual happened: The House of Representatives took a step to reform itself. Legislators approved a package of rules changes to fix some of its more glaring problems. Some of these are long overdue: As of Jan. 4, representatives can no longer sit on corporate boards while in office, and members are now officially prohibited from sleeping with their staff.
Even more promising, and potentially more ambitious, is another plan the House set in motion: A new bipartisan committee to fix Congress, which has not been done since the early 1990s. Early signs are good: It passed by a near-unanimous vote; its chair,Rep. Derek Kilmer (D- Wash.), has been pushing for House reform for years; and at least two of the members will be freshmen, who have not been co-opted into the House’s current dysfunctional ways.
It’s called the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, and its job,at the narrowest level, is “investigate, study, make findings, hold public hearings, and develop recommendations on modernizing Congress.” But what it’s really doing is developing the means for the House to better fulfill its role as one half of the first branch of government—the body that makes America’s laws, sets America’s budget and is most closely connected to its citizens.
If we don’t normally think of Congress this way, that’s in part because of the knots Congress has tied around itself—and which the committee could help untangle. Americans today have a higher opinion of traffic jams and colonoscopies than of Congress as an institution. Thanks to a combination of rabidly partisan politics and self-inflicted capacity cuts, Congress has trouble solving the serious problems put before it, and we tend to look for a powerful executive leader to cut through the nonsense. Today, with the executive branch led by an erratic person who seems more interested in inflaming controversies than governing, the stakes for a functioning Congress have never been higher.
What should the committee do? The wish list for fixing Congress is long, and time is tight; the committee is due to report its recommendations by the end of the year.
As both researchers and former Hill staffers, we have been looking closely for years, from the outside as well as the inside, at how Congress works, what’s gotten it off track, and how it should be reformed. We’ve spoken to legislators, Hill staffers and experts who laid out the various things wrong with Congress and shared dozens of interesting ideas for how to fix things.
Over time, it’s become clear that a handful of ideas belong at the top of the list—changes that would help the House, our most representative body, reclaim the spot our framers intended. Fixing the House will go a long way on its own toward fixing Congress and might spur the Senate to undertake its own desperately needed reforms.A few of these proposals are more politically practical than others, but they all fall squarely with the modernization committee’s remit.
1. More money. More people.
Over the past few decades, the reach of government has grown, but the legislative branch has shrunk. A member of Congress today has a smaller pool of resources to draw on than a member 40 years ago, in the form of member offices, committees and especially nonpartisan supporting agencies such as the Congressional Research Service and the Congressional Budget Office.
It’s an unavoidable truth that getting things done requires people to do the work—and Congress is starved of people. More money is now spent on lobbying than the whole of the legislative branch. The staffers Congress does employ, meanwhile, frequently flee Congress for the private sector after very short stints on the Hill. This is because they are paid frustratingly low wages and must endure exceptionally trying work environments. This churn hobbles the legislature’s ability to develop the institutional knowledge needed for sound lawmaking and effective congressional oversight and makes it easier for lobbyists to gain sway.
It is not fashionable to say that government needs to be bigger, and the optics of Congress increasing its own $3.8 billionbudget are admittedly terrible. But in fact, the legislative branch is long overdue for a capacity boost to meet its challenges,and if there’s one starting point for a committee trying to put Congress back in the driver’s seat, this is it.
2. Power to the committees.
Officially, laws are supposed to be drafted by representatives, evaluated and “marked up” by committees, and then get a vote on the House floor. But in real life, nothing moves through committees unless the party leader says so. Lawmaking authority in the contemporary Congress has been centralized in leadership offices. This is why media coverage of Congress often is framed as “McConnell vs. Pelosi” and the like. This also is why gridlock seems endemic: only a handful of legislators end up trying to govern a diverse country of more than 300 million people.
The House would be truer to its conception as a popular assembly if it operated in a more democratic manner. To that end, the select committee should propose shifting more power over the legislative process to committees and subcommittees. Let these gaggles of elected officials do what elected officials are supposed to do: propose, debate and bargain over policy. Which means leadership should be urged to quit the post-1960s practice of drawing up detailed slates of policy at the start of each Congress and ramming it through the chamber over the protests of the minority.
Committees, however, will not expend the blood, sweat and tears to draw up real legislation unless they can be confident their labors might be rewarded with a floor vote. In recent sessions, unfortunately, even the most bipartisan of measures have languished on the House calendar or been rewritten by leadership before they are considered. To change that, the modernization committee should propose parliamentary procedures that empower committee chairmen to take bills directly to the floor for debate and votes. Leadership will be loath to loosen its control over the chamber’s agenda. But continuing the current model of passing bills along partisan lines and watching them die in the Senate is self-defeating for either party. The proof is in the fact that party control of the House keeps flipping because voters view each party as failing to get things done.
3. A high-tech overhaul.
When Mark Zuckerberg appeared in front of the Senate last year to be grilled on trolls infiltrating Facebook, he faced a barrage of questions that could have come from 1990, and inspired online mockery about Methuselah-like senators trying to fix their blinking VCRs. That was overstating the mismatch, but it highlighted that Congress is a 20th century organization operating in a 21st century world. From its inadequate constituent service software, to its hackable communications systems, to the staggering lack of technology experts available to advise members on some of the fastest-moving and most important policy issues they face, the House needs a major update.
Beyond acquiring better software and hardware, the House needs more nerds who understand technology. The situation is so desperate a private foundation is placing tech fellows in Hill offices on their own dime. One straightforward way the legislature could bolster its tech chops is by simply reviving the defunct Office of Technology Assessment, a nonpartisan agency that used to advise it on how to understand emerging technlogies. OTA published hundreds of studies from 1972 to 1995, when it was defunded by Speaker Newt Gingrich, who thought it was a waste of money. Alternatively, the modernization committee could suggest staffing up the Government Accountability Office’s small corps of technology wonks, who study topics like artifical intelligence, 3D printing and nanomanufacturing.
Either way, a legislature with few technologists and scientists among its members will remain unable to grapple competently with tech issues—both big policy topics and its own Wi-Fi passwords—unless it hires a lot of help.
4. Make “Representative” a real job
Right now, the average elected member of the House shows up to his or her job site (the Hill) less than half the year. It is rare for the House to be in session for an entire workweek. Instead members fly in on Mondays then fly back home on Fridays, which racks up crazy high airfare expenses and leaves only three days of precious time each week to do the work of legislating.
Additionally, members of the House have not had a pay increase since 2009. In fact, with so much of the public angry at Congress, elected officials are actually proposing pay freezes and benefit cuts for themselves. This parsimony is understandable, but it comes with costs. Being a member of Congress is incredibly expensive. Upon being elected, lawmakers face a choice between maintaining a second residence in one of the most expensive cities in the country, or sleeping in their offices. No surprise that these individuals who are crazy enough to serve in Congress are wealthier than the average voter and more likely than ever to quit Congress to cash in as lobbyists.
Members of the House should spend more time in D.C. doing what they were elected to do: govern. Not long ago, many legislators moved to D.C. with their families and stayed more than half the year. That model might be a bit too much these days for a legislator fearful of being primaried for getting Potomac fever. But the modernization committee might propose changes to the House calendar to encourage members to stay in town more. For instance, a schedule in which the House worked a five-day week for three weeks at a stretch would likely keep more members in town, and then the chamber could close for a full week or two so members could fly home to fundraise and meet with constituents. This reform would help Congress get more done and save members money on airfare, which they might be able to put toward housing in D.C.
Another way to make being a lawmaker more affordable while avoiding the political challenges of paying themselves more is to provide a housing stipend. Doing so would make it less difficult for legislators from more modest backgrounds, like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), to afford living in D.C. The committee might also look into ways to reduce the high cost of child care for legislators. So too per-diem subsidies or automatic cost of living adjustments, which are common in the private sector, and which might counterbalance some of the allure of quitting Congress to lobby.
5. Realign committee jurisdictions
Congress is supposed to oversee the executive branch and its huge roster of departments and agencies. Doing so, however, is bedeviled by the lack of alignment between committees’ jurisdictions and agencies. The Department of Homeland Security, to cite a particularly egregious example, has dozens of committees and subcommittees claiming oversight of aspects of its work. Other committees, meanwhile, are focused on broad issues, like “science, space and technology” rather than any particular slice of American governance. Only in Washington can it be considered normal to have the Energy Committee overseeing cable television as well as nuclear plants.
Despite being desperately overdue, there has been no serious reorganization of House committee jurisdictions in nearly a century. With new policies and laws passing each year and the world changing, the problem is becoming worse, and congressional oversight responsibilities more fragmented.
Changing committee jurisdiction sounds boring and procedural, but in fact it’s politically brutal work—someone’s cheese gets moved, and someone’s ox is gored, and those “someones” are powerful career officeholders. But it has been done before and can be done again. One way the modernization committee could handle this is to expand the number of congressional committees to reflect the growth in the number of agencies, which would help prevent the existing committees from becoming overwhelmed by a large number of issues or a large number of members. It also should tailor new committee jurisdictions to match the structure of the executive branch. Committees, then, would be less about policing a particular subject area—which inevitably spans across multiple committees—and more about overseeing particular entities and officials in the executive branch. Many chairmen would howl at such reforms, which would be fine—let them publicly defend the indefensible to voters.
We hope the modernization committee will advocate for reforms in these five areas. Again, any proposed changes will need to get the nod of Speaker Pelosi—no small ask, since any congressional leader today has built his or her career on successfully navigating the system as it is. (Indeed, a congressional reform effort in the early 1990s died when Democrats went wobbly and chose to stick with the status quo. Newt Gingrich subsequently made them pay a steep political price for it.) If Speaker Pelosi rises to the moment, she would leave the House of Representatives much more capable of responding to the demands of the 21st century and far more likely to elicit the public’s esteem. That is a legacy that few congressional leaders can match.
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