To modernize Congress, strengthen its ability to deliberate

Matt Glassman writes in the November copy of the Ripon Society:

As an institution, Congress does not appear very different than it did 200 years ago. It remains a two-chamber legislative body, one apportioned by population and the other by state. Members introduce bills, debate legislation, meet with constituents, cast votes, and enact laws. Business is conducted under rules based on Jefferson’s Manual of parliamentary procedure. A visitor from 1790 who wandered into the House gallery would not find the proceeding particularly difficult to follow.

Below the surface, however, the institution has changed dramatically. Membership has grown from 59 Representatives and 26 Senators in the first Congress to the current 435 Representatives and 100 Senators. While 19th century sessions were often as short as three months, contemporary Congresses typically meet year round. And for much of American history, committees had very small staffs, and individual members had no staff support; today, over 20,000 staffers support the legislative process.

Many of these changes have been in response to external changes in society. Geographic expansion, population growth, and technological developments all expanded the range of issues before the nation. An increasingly integrated national economy expanded the role of the federal government, particularly after the Great Depression and World War II. As the volume, scope, and complexity of issues increased, Congress responded by reorganizing and building its own capacity, most notably in the 1946 and 1970 Congressional Reorganizations Acts. These laws reformed committee jurisdiction, increased staff support, and developed non-partisan legislative branch institutions, with the goal of enhancing legislative and oversight capabilities….


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Topics: Committees & Caucuses
Tags: Matt Glassman