The Senate Should Follow the House’s Lead on Modernization

Earlier this year, the new Republican majority in the House of Representatives established the Subcommittee on Modernization under the Committee on House Administration. This is an important and commendable step in ensuring the chamber is functioning with greater efficiency and effectiveness. However, the House is but one chamber of Congress, and it is time the Senate also considers ways to improve how it goes about its job. 

Modernization does not have to mean wholesale institutional reform. It simply means rethinking how the day-to-day work of senators is done in order to improve its efficiency and effectiveness. Doing so does not advantage one party over the other, but it can make the job of members and staff easier and improve the representation provided to constituents. With this in mind, we suggest three improvements the Senate can consider to make the chamber work better.

Improve Scheduling

There are currently 24 committees with 71 subcommittees in the Senate—each one with its own calendar for hearings and markups. Given that there are only 100 senators, it is not uncommon for any one member to serve on a handful of committees as well as a dozen subcommittees. This can create huge demands on senators’ schedules, especially when considered in conjunction with their other responsibilities including meeting with constituents, lobbyists and other members as well as casting votes, fundraising and traveling. 

All of these demands mean that some important committee hearings occur at the same time as other important committee hearings, and senators must move in and out of them to participate—if they attend at all. With a common calendar, committee and subcommittee meetings could be scheduled with the timing of other meetings in mind. This would decrease the number of conflicts an individual senator has and increase their ability to participate fully in all of the meetings and hearings taking place within their assigned committees and subcommittees.

The Senate can also recognize “committee only time,” wherein they do not schedule votes during committee hearings so that members are not required to divide their time and attention between these two important parts of their jobs.

Though the problem may seem relatively innocuous, deconflicting committee meetings and increasing participation is an important step in empowering the legislative branch. Conducting meaningful oversight and drafting good, effective policy requires familiarity, expertise and nuance that cannot be easily obtained by committee members if they must float in between hearings and meetings for a few minutes at a time.

Improve Casework

One of the most important aspects of a member’s job is casework, or the assistance that senators can provide to their constituents looking to resolve some sort of issue with the federal government, such as navigating the federal bureaucracy or tracking down a lost benefits check. The House has identified numerous inefficiencies and provided recommendations for resolving them that would be applicable to the Senate as well. 

One example of a simple fix would be to centralize best practices for handling constituent services. A lack of clear standards and instructions means that new staff are often left learning on the fly through secondhand information (at best). This inefficiency is exacerbated by the high levels of turnover for both members and their staff.

This may also seem like a relatively innocuous issue that does not warrant the Senate’s attention. However, a mere one-in-five people approve of the job Congress is doing. Over the past decade, the highest percentage of approval garnered by Congress has been a paltry 36 percent. It is clear that the public does not view the institution favorably, but by positioning itself to be more responsive to the needs of its constituents, perceptions may improve.

Public approval may not seem particularly important to the functioning of Congress, especially in light of the high reelection rates for members, but trust in the institutions is the bedrock of our representative form of government. If the public does not trust Congress to do its job, it grows bitter and disenchanted and may begin to question the legitimacy of the institution. Any steps that can be taken to combat that trend should therefore be given strong consideration. 

Improve Civility

Americans view Congress as deeply polarized despite the public achieving bipartisan agreement on a wide range of issues. In the Senate, finding common ground is especially important given the supermajority rules required to pass legislation and confirm nominees. Members are toeing the party line in record numbers in recent years, but in a divided government finding common ground is necessary.

There are multiple ways that the Senate can try to get members from different parties to work better together, and most do not even require legislation. These include encouraging bipartisan retreats for members and their families, bipartisan fact-finding trips and cross-state travel for members. Each of these would take members out of their partisan camps, foster stronger relationships and lead to an exchange of ideas in a way that could translate into greater productivity in the chamber.

Animosity toward the opposite party continues to grow within the American electorate. Instead of simply disagreeing on policy, citizens view those of the opposite party as “immoral, dishonest, and closed-minded.” This is not sustainable. The Senate can try to turn the tide on this dynamic by leading by example and conducting themselves in a bipartisan and civil manner.

Each of these recommendations has the potential to improve the inner workings of the Senate drastically, and there are many other issues to be explored and solutions to be found. The House has achieved bipartisan recognition of the value of rethinking and improving the efficiency and effectiveness of the chamber. The Senate would be wise to follow their lead.

Ryan Williamson
My name is Ryan Williamson, and I am an Assistant Professor of Political Science in the College of Liberal Arts at Auburn University. Prior to this, I...