The other biggest problem in Washington
A supine Congress unable to hold a president accountable. Members who find the job miserable (except for the status). A persistent problem of understaffing and lack of policy expertise. For decades, Congress has faced these growing problems and others. The Trump era has thrown them into overdrive.
Congress has weakened itself and centralized its policymaking authority in the House and Senate leadership. Rank-and-file members feel like spectators who vote as they are told — more like minions than legislators. The reality of this dysfunctional Congress is reflected both in dismal public-approval polling and on the dour faces on Capitol Hill. Just this weekend Ben Sasse, the senator from Nebraska, wondered aloud: “Why am I flying away from Nebraska to go to D.C. this week? Are we going to get real stuff done?”
Congress has been here before. It rejuvenated itself — and it can do so again. Near the end of World War II, Congress took a long, hard look at itself. The first branch of government was being eclipsed. A sprawling and unaccountable executive branch and metastasizing national security state threatened to make Congress irrelevant. For years, partisans — on the right — decried nascent dictatorship. Legislators were overwhelmed by immense demands from the public, which expected legislators to make the executive branch serve the people.
So in 1945, Congress stood up a Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress to assess the mess and find a path forward. One of its first testifiers was the congressional physician George Calver, who offered grim testimony: “When I first came to the Capitol, it was not uncommon to pick up a member of Congress who had died in his office at the rate of about one a month.” Dr. Calver had been working in Congress since 1928. He was not exaggerating. In the 72nd Congress (1931-32), 26 members died in office. “With all the irons which a member of Congress has in the fire,” Dr. Calver went on, “it is difficult to see, under the present situation, where he has to visit departments, attend committee meetings, do a thousand and one other things besides his congressional duties, how he gets along as well as he does.”
The committee’s diligent, bipartisan work led to the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946. Congress voted itself an infusion of staffing and other support resources, reorganized its committee structure and modernized its budgeting processes. Congress came back to life as an institution capable of overseeing the executive branch and addressing new and pressing policy challenges. And being a member of Congress became a little less hazardous to one’s health.
But by the late 1960s, Congress again saw itself eclipsed, as the Johnson and Nixon administrations expanded that branch’s power. Then as now, the internal politics of Congress were roiling the caldron of reform. Ambitious junior members were tired of a committee seniority system that kept them in second-class status and marginalized their ambitious policy ideas.
So our nation’s legislators enacted the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970, and committee reforms soon after. These reforms expanded committee, support agency and minority party staffing, and more important, created a way around the dictatorial roadblocks created by senior committee leaders expanding subcommittees. Again, the reforms enabled Congress to flourish as an institution of bipartisan legislative creativity and executive oversight, where many more members got to put their talents to work.
Regrettably, Congress slowed investments in internal capacity and began to centralize internally in the 1980s. Under Democratic leadership, party leaders took power away from committees, and that process was turbocharged in 1995 by Speaker Newt Gingrich, who took control of selecting committee leaders and cut staffing levels by one-third.
Congress has not yet recovered. In both chambers, but especially the House, there has been a steady brain drain of expert capacity out of Congress and into lobbying and the bureaucracy. And the centralization of power in Congress has weakened it as an institution and frustrated the rank and file as it swoops everything it does into the maw of zero-sum partisan gamesmanship in service of the next election.
History suggests that Congress is likely to reform itself again and potentially soon. High levels of frustration among rank-and-file members and the likelihood that almost one-third of the House members after the 2018 will be in their first or second terms are familiar dynamics that have preceded reforms in the past.
Members of Congress may not be dropping dead in their offices from overwork today, but they are quitting in droves. No wonder: Legislators must navigate a never-ending onslaught of partisan attacks, respond to the 24/7 media swirl and tirelessly fund-raise, all of which increases the risks of speaking their minds and reduces constructive opportunities to serve constituents and develop policy. On a really bad day, they have minutes to evaluate a 2,600-page bill before casting the votes demanded by party leadership. And as in the past, the executive branch is pushing the constitutional envelope, with today’s legislators also burdened by the presidential “crazytown.”
Congress can collectively decide that the current arrangement is intolerable. Our legislature can reorganize itself in ways that privilege expertise, competence and cross-partisan compromise. But this will not happen unless entrepreneurial members with political courage step forward with proposals that will increase members’ opportunities to put their talents to work on behalf of their constituents and their country.
A Congress with capacity would have the staff with the technological chops to comprehend what government should do — if anything — about the big tech companies. A revived legislature could devote more energy to finding ways to repair the broken budget process, which has us on the path to trillion-dollar annual deficits. A “Congress that could” would shore up the public’s confidence in the integrity of this autumn’s elections by establishing a bipartisan review of the results.
In the past, when being a rank-and-file member of Congress became as unpleasant and irrelevant as it is today, and when Congress had ceded this much authority to the executive branch, members of Congress took it upon themselves to change the institution. The framers counted on this kind of ambition countering ambition. Now the nation does as well.
Image credit: Alessio Catelli