Ten ways to unsuck Congress
“This place sucks.” Sen. Joe Manchin’s candid commentary came during discussions with Democratic leadership about whether the West Virginia senator would run for reelection.
Manchin’s remarks were less a revelation than a rare, public expression of a feeling common on the Hill. Life in Congress is a drag—the public loathes the institution, the parties relentlessly trash each other, and few members feel they have power to do anything. The federal budget is a mess, the executive branch runs rampant, and oversight has devolved into just another part of the permanent campaign.
But it does not have to be this way. Congress is free to structure its operations, set its own rules, and fund itself however it pleases. To help our friends on the Hill get their groove back (and improve their public image), the R Street Institute’s Governance Project Team offers these 10 ideas for improving life in Congress:
- Don’t wait for permission to do your job. Senators complain about how the Senate works. But they can force votes on amendments and legislation even when the majority leader says no. By exerting their procedural prerogatives more forcefully on the Senate floor, senators can re-establish an equilibrium between the two parties, thereby creating the conditions for compromise.
- Reinstitute Calendar Wednesday in the House. Given the consent of the chair, committees could bypass leaders and call measures for consideration on the House floor on one legislative day a week. This practice would incentivize members and committees to make policy. Would it be messy? Probably, but that’s okay. Democratic governance is supposed to be a messy, bottom-up process.
- Enforce existing rules to overcome excessive obstruction. Doing so would offer Senate Republicans a way to increase the Senate’s productivity without undermining the ability of all senators to participate in the process on behalf of their constituents.
- Get rid of the 6-year term limit on House committee chairmen. Republicans adopted this rule in 1995 and it discourages chairs from developing policy expertise and conducting good oversight. Moving from chairman back to rank-and-file status is unappealing and leads to diminished effectiveness in the chamber. Nine of 21 House committee chairs have already announced their retirements at the end of this session.
- Pay congressional staff more. Seriously. Twenty-somethings are great, and they’ll work hard for cheap, but Congress badly needs to attract and retain more experienced hands. The cost of living in the D.C. area has skyrocketed and talented staff can make a lot more off the Hill.
- Staff up the legislative branch support agencies. These agencies—CRS, GAO, and CBO—provide nonpartisan, objective analysis to Congress, and their staffs have dwindled as government has grown larger and more complex. This is a recipe for ill-informed governance.
- Trust support agency experts to be experts. Today, many of these experts feel stifled and are forbidden to reach conclusions despite clear evidence on an issue. As one former support agency analyst put it, “We need to return to valuing authoritativeness over objectivity.” Not all sides of an argument are equal, and Congress would be wise to allow the experts at their disposal to speak clearly and authoritatively.
- Get Congress back into regulatory policymaking in a serious way. Creating a dedicated Congressional Regulation Office that would help legislators deal intelligently with the complex technical issues involved would help.
- Take ethics seriously. Let the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) do its job. Instead of restricting the OCE’s authority and jurisdiction, the House should adhere to the principles of transparency and public accountability. Congressional workplace cases should be handled through the OCE’s independent and transparent process.
- Provide institutional resources for congressional member organizations (CMOs). Most CMOs provide bipartisan forums for the exchange of policy information. Since 1995, House rules have prohibited members from providing CMOs with congressional office space, use of the frank, and funds from their office allowances. CMOs also cannot accepts gifts, funds, or services from private organizations. Member organizations that promote regular, bipartisan dialogue and policy solutions should be encouraged, not thwarted.
There are many other things Congress can do to make itself stronger, more competent, and a happier place to work. But these reforms would be a good start.