Why we left Congress: How the legislative branch is broken and what we can do about it

Systemic institutional dysfunction was a leading cause for more than 50 Republican and Democratic members of Congress who voluntarily did not seek re-election this year, according to a new joint report by Issue One and the R Street Institute.

Interviews with a select group of over half a dozen outgoing and recently-retired lawmakers who were vocal about why they chose not to return to Congress next year raised a number of critical issues. They range from hyper-partisanship in Congress and increased fundraising demands, to the growing centralization of power in party leaders, “closed rules” limiting legislative debate, and even the House calendar.

“These departing Republicans and Democrats paint the disturbing picture that Congress is fast becoming a place that repels, rather than attracts, leaders who want to get things done,” said Issue One CEO Nick Penniman.

“A healthy Congress is one where legislators feel like they are actually legislating for the public good,” said R Street Institute Vice President for Policy Kevin Kosar.

Only once since 1930 has the number of voluntary departures been higher than it was this cycle. Members choosing to walk away from their public service positions include eight Republican committee chairs and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI), who became the second speaker in a row to voluntarily give up the gavel of the most powerful position in the House.

Among the report’s key findings:

  • Rank and file members feel left out of the debate. Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC) once lamented, “Do I think I’m making a difference? No. Not from a legislative standpoint.”
  • Party leaders continue to centralize power to the detriment of the committees. Rep. Mike Simpson (R-ID) said, “Leadership needs to give direction, but committee chairman aren’t what they used to be.”
  • Limiting debate limits alliances between Republicans and Democrats. Rep. Rick Nolan (D-MN) noted that amendments offered helped members find common ground for cooperation. “That’s how members get to know each other and what their real feelings are about issues. When the rules are structured, or closed, the work of the Congress becomes greatly simplified.” Nolan was first elected in 1974, served three terms, and was then re-elected in 2012 after 32 years out of office.
  • The congressional calendar is structured to fill campaign war chests. Much of today’s dysfunction dates back to the rise of House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA)in the 1990s, including the shortening of the official work week to provide members more time to dial for dollars, according to congressional observers.
  • Republican term limits on Committee chairs hurts policy expertise and encourages retirements.Outgoing House Finance Committee Chair Jeb Hensarling (R-TX) noted, “Are term limits playing a role in an exodus of chairmen, along with collective years of wisdom? Of course it is.”
  • Fundraising dues tied to committee assignments empowers the Speaker of the House. Rep. Jimmy Duncan (R-TN) said, “Listen, you don’t get these chairmanships,” if members do not pay their dues. Rep. Niki Tsongas (D-MA) also explained that “the seriousness of your candidacy is often measured by your ability to raise funds.”
  • Partisanship is on the rise — and not going anywhere. Recently retired Rep. Charlie Dent (R-PA), who served for 13 years, said, “[Members] political safety is tacking hard to their bases, and in many cases the fringe elements of the bases.”

Republican and Democratic members of Congress have proposed a variety of potential solutions, including the formation of a Joint Select Committee on the Organization of Congress.

Read the full report and proposed solutions in “Why We Left Congress: How the Legislative Branch is Broken and What We Can Do About It” here.

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Topics: Reform Efforts