Rep. Darin LaHood on congressional dysfunction and the prospects for reform
By Marian Currinder
Efforts to reform congressional dysfunction typically come from senior members who are tired of not getting anything done, former members who can speak openly (and critically) about what’s wrong with the institution, and various organizations dedicated to improving Congress’s capacity and performance. Not so with H. Con. Res. 28, which would establish a joint committee on the organization of Congress to study and make recommendations to improve the organization, operations, and functions of Congress. The resolution is sponsored by Rep. Darin LaHood (R-18th/IL), elected to Congress less than three years ago. Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-3rd/IL) is the resolution’s primary co-sponsor.
It’s been just over one year since LaHood introduced H. Con. Res. 28. We sat down with him to talk about the resolution, dysfunction in Congress, and the prospects for reform in the 115th.
Despite his relatively short stint in Congress, LaHood is well versed in the politics of dysfunction. Prior to winning a seat in the House, he focused on ethics and transparency issues as an Illinois state senator, and as a state and federal prosecutor. He worked as a Hill staffer in the 1990s, and his father, former Rep. Ray LaHood, represented Illinois’s 18th district from 1995-2009. He came to Washington with the perspective that government is supposed to be effective.
So far, H. Con. Res. 28 has 64 co-sponsors from both sides of the aisle, many of whom are freshmen. There are no leaders signed on to the bill and according to LaHood, this is by design. For now, he and Lipinski want the effort to be more organic and “grassroots driven.” Once they have at least 100 co-sponsors, they’ll determine a strategy for taking their resolution to leadership.
Asked if there was any one event or issue that served as the impetus for H. Con. Res. 28, LaHood said that for him, it was the “constant blowing of timelines and deadlines.” Whether it’s passing CR’s, doing things by omnibus, dealing with fiscal cliffs or the debt ceiling, Congress isn’t doing what it’s supposed to do. LaHood said that dysfunction is the common denominator that needs to be addressed.
LaHood and many of his freshmen co-sponsors immediately recognized institutional dysfunction. New members are instantly aware of Congress’s low approval ratings and lack of productivity. There’s a strong desire, he said, to see a return to regular order and to establish a regular process so that members can serve more effectively. This doesn’t happen anymore – everyone knows it, yet dysfunction continues to persist. LaHood says his colleagues have a lot to say about what’s wrong with Congress and a lot of good ideas.
The idea for a joint committee on the organization of Congress was born out of a desire to provide members from both sides of the aisle with a platform or mechanism for bringing ideas to the table. That doesn’t exist now, according to LaHood. “Members are here for 72 hours, running around like crazy, and there are no opportunities to sit down and discuss these issues in a cerebral way.”
He and Lipinski made a conscious choice to propose a forum for ideas rather than prescribe their own solutions to the problems. The committee would provide a much-needed setting for the exchange of ideas. Discussions would be bipartisan and bicameral, and take place at both the staff and member level. One goal is for members to build relationships across the aisle and across chambers—something that he says members have little time to do, but would go a long way in terms of improving dysfunction.
As for whether the current dysfunction can be blamed on the members themselves, LaHood says there’s plenty of blame to go around. There are members who resist change because the system as it currently works serves them well. And there are members who are ideologically extreme and don’t have much interest in working across the aisle. That said, he believes all members need to be accountable to their constituents and should embrace a transparent process that actually works.
In the absence of a dedicated congressional reform effort, LaHood isn’t very optimistic about Congress resolving its current dysfunction. Some members, according to LaHood, are looking hopefully at the recently established Joint Select Committee on Budget and Appropriations Process Reform. If that committee actually “works,” then there’s hope for a joint committee on congressional organization, operations, and functions. But institutional reform isn’t going to happen on its own — there are simply too many things that need to change.
Marian Currinder is senior fellow in governance at R Street Institute and edits the LegBranch.com blog.