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Reinvigorating congressional reauthorizations

To:             The Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress

From:       E. Scott Adler, University of Colorado, Boulder

Reform:  Reinvigorating congressional reauthorizations

While congressional dysfunction has its origins in many different corners of both Capitol Hill and our electoral process, I focus on one aspect of that dysfunction: abdication of governing responsibilities over federal agencies and programs through lack of regular reauthorizations. In many ways this abdication has shifted normal management of wide expanses of the federal government to the executive branch and has, to some degree, meant that programs and departments operate on autopilot.

Over the last few decades Congress has increasingly failed at its regular duties of updating the authorization of federal departments and programs. As described by one long-time congressional staffer, the ability of some committees to reauthorize has atrophied so badly that existing membership and staff simply have little familiarity with the process involved in properly performing this necessary function. In the absence of new directives from Congress, the executive branch, sometimes through OMB or the leadership in the agencies and departments themselves, fill the governing gap without meaningful congressional input.

Congress has adopted a number of work-arounds to ensure that agencies still function in the face of its increasing inability to perform regular reauthorizations: waving the rules on unauthorized appropriations, regularly adopting continuing resolutions to maintain programs and agencies even after years of inaction on reauthorizations, legislating changes in authorizing language through the appropriation process, etc.

While the roots of this dysfunction are many, the core solution lies with Congress reinvesting in its committees as a means of bolstering its governing capacity vis-à-vis the executive branch and reinvigorating congressional authority over agencies. I suggest a number of carrots and sticks to strengthen congressional interest and ability to reauthorize.

On the incentives side, Congress should make it easier and more attractive for members to devote time and resources to committee work, particularly focused on reauthorizations. Like many others, I would advocate a significant investment in professional staff and congressional support agencies. Better staff pay and training, a more collegial work environment, and expanded recognition of the vital role played by staff will help diversify the congressional workforce and encourage staff to stay on Capitol Hill for the long term. Their institutional knowledge is critical to a high performing legislature.

Additionally, Congress should move away from partisan committee staff to more professional non-partisan staff, with no ties to the majority leadership. Creating clearer pathways to career advancement within the institution, not linked to the electoral fortunes of one party or the other, will help with retention of the most highly skilled and knowledgeable staff. This might be accomplished by putting the committee staff under the control of existing chamber offices, such as the chamber parliamentarian.

From the perspective of lawmakers, Congress should reward contributions to committee work.

  • Open up greater opportunities to add proposals to legislation in committee markup. Encourage legislative proposals from backbenchers (of both parties) and allow them to attach names to legislative amendments for credit claiming purposes.
  • Make it easier for authorizing committees to receive restrictive rules from the Rules Committee to protect their hard-earned legislative work from being unraveled on the chamber floor.
  • Parties should grant leadership positions on committees, such as subcommittee chairmanships, through a selection process that rewards policy expertise and commitment to legislative accomplishment.

Additionally, some power on committees should be devolved back to subcommittees by (1):

  • Guaranteeing a staff member for each subcommittee.
  • Guaranteeing in the chamber rules a subcommittee can hold hearings without permission of the committee chair.
  • Guaranteeing full committees cannot meet during times subcommittees meet (reserve time on the calendar each week for subcommittees to meet, if they so choose), except with the consent of the subcommittee chairs.

Alternatively, disincentives should be intensified as a means of increasing the pain and consequences of inaction by Congress in fulfilling its governing obligations. As we have learned, easing the ability of lawmakers to appropriate without proper authorizations has weakened Congress’s legislative expertise and its functioning as a governing body.

  • Eliminate or dramatically curtail the ability of lawmakers to waive the rules on unauthorized appropriations.
  • Limit the amount of time that agency or program authorizations can exist on a CR, after which they must shutdown.
  • For some committees move the entirety of its work into an annual authorization, such as done with the defense authorization. This will regularize the operations of a committee and fold in all the relevant lawmaking for a department or agency.


(1) The suggestions on subcommittees come from Prof. Jeremy Gelman (University of Nevada), who has also served as an APSA Congressional Fellow.

Filed Under:
Topics: Reform Efforts
E. Scott Adler
Scott Adler is Professor and Chair of Political Science at the University of Colorado, Boulder.  He is also Director of the American Politics Research...