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How to Save Congress From Itself

While the pain of legislative dysfunction has never been more keenly felt, reforms that all sides agree upon are still possible.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The Republican-led Senate flew home without passing a bill to renew or extend its stimulus measure, raising the prospect that millions of Americans will face more economic hardship in the weeks and months ahead. Democrats in the House of Representatives passed their own version of a second stimulus bill in May. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, President Donald Trump, and leading GOP senators have yet to coalesce to craft a counterproposal for further negotiation. Lawmakers have flatly failed in America’s hour of need.

Part of the problem is that Senate Republicans appear to be ideologically incapable of doing their jobs. GOP discussions on another wave of economic stimulus have largely focused on shrinking the federal $600 unemployment supplement and narrowing other benefits, even as the economy shows signs of further collapse. “A strategy for the economy?” Indiana Senator Todd Young, a Republican, told The New York Times earlier this week. “That’s not how economies work. [Trump] is not the Wizard of Oz, who controls the economy. Growth is created by innovators and entrepreneurs and rank and file workers, based on supply and demand.”

Against this backdrop, I read through a new report released this week by the Association of Former Members of Congress, or FMC. Titled “Congress at a Crossroads,” it takes a look at the forces that have bedeviled and hamstrung the legislative branch over the past few decades. The report, appropriately enough for the organization that drafted it, draws upon interviews with former members of Congress to give an insider’s perspective of what’s gone wrong. It broadly concludes that congressional leadership wields too much power, that fundraising and contributions have too much influence, and that lawmakers spend too little time building relationships with one another.

“The cumulative voice of these interviews portrays a Congress defined by earnest and hard-working representatives from across the political spectrum who are united by a shared dedication to serve both their communities and the national interest—but who are hamstrung by polarization, partisan distrust, political calculation, leadership pressure, institutional dysfunction, and too little encouragement to address it,” the report said. “As the words of these former members detail, it is a complex and often conflicted institution—and one in need of significant change.”

It’s hard to imagine a more urgent moment than now for Congress to reassert itself as an active, representative force in American governance. But the FMC report, as well as two other reports on congressional reform released by Washington, D.C., think tanks earlier this year, also underscore how difficult it will be to rebuild Congress as a functional institution. There is no single fix that could remedy all legislative woes nor is there a straightforward path to enacting them. Some problems are beyond the ability of any rule or law to change. Others may well be permanent.

Perhaps the most feasible reforms are those that reshape the legislative process itself—not the constitutional path by which a bill becomes a law, of course, but the internal mechanisms of each legislative chamber as they write bills and hammer out compromises. In theory, Congress is supposed to fund the government each year through a series of bills crafted by the House and Senate Appropriations Committees. In practice, however, lawmakers have increasingly used “must-pass” continuing resolutions to keep the government open, essentially turning the budgetary process into a series of ticking clock stand-offs. Sometimes, the bomb goes off.

In a report on congressional reform released in January, a task force of the American Political Science Association, or APSA, partly blamed power shifts within each chamber for the dysfunction. “Relative power has shifted from committees to parties, as party leaders have centralized authority over the spending process at the expense of Appropriations committee and subcommittee chairs and rank-and-file members,” the report noted. “Legislative compromises now tend to be orchestrated by leadership and their staff, limiting the influence of rank-and-file members in the legislative process.” The result is a coercive process where most lawmakers must either vote for a bill where they had no influence or vote to partially shut down the government.

The APSA’s task force avoided making recommendations where they could not reach a consensus on how to fix something, which makes the report somewhat more diagnostic than surgical. In January, however, the conservative FreedomWorks Foundation also released a report on congressional reform that delved into some of the possible solutions. It focuses more broadly on how legislators “ceded many of its constitutionally delegated powers to the executive branch and concentrated most of the rest in the hands of congressional leadership.” Some of their proposals for regulatory reform and changes to the budgetary process will be met with skepticism from the left, as will their dismissal of the federal bureaucracy in general as an “unconstitutional fourth branch of government.”

Despite these differences, there is some room for common ground. The FreedomWorks report’s authors call for the repeal of the 2001 Authorization of Use of Military Force, or AUMF, as well as the War Powers Resolution reform that moves away from “mere consultation” when presidents carry out military strikes and instead imposes hard limits on a president’s war-making authority without Congress’s assent. They also call for Congress to claw back some of its authority over trade policy, reversing delegations to the executive branch that Trump used to wage a costly trade war with China and the European Union.

Perhaps the report’s most ambitious proposals for reform are aimed at Congress’s inner workings. Like the other two reports, the FreedomWorks report also expresses frustration about congressional leadership’s tight grip over rank-and-file members, which it maintains through control over committee assignments, party fundraising efforts, and more subtle means of influence. The report called for the House to strictly enforce the rule that lawmakers get three days to read a bill before voting on it, reopening the amendment process for major legislation, giving minority parties an opportunity to amend the rules, and more. (Though it unfortunately opposes filibuster reform, the FreedomWorks report also supports a more open amendment process for Senate bills as well.)

These changes, the report concludes, would help restore the House to its proper constitutional role. “Ultimately, the House of Representatives by its nature will always behave as more of a populist, majoritarian body, but that should not mean that the entire power of legislating rests in the hands of just a few of its 435 elected representatives,” the report said. “Restoring the ability of individual members to participate in the process and actually represent their constituents with their own local interests is of paramount importance for Congress to regain relevance. If instead we make all issues national and insist [on] monolithic party action, there is really no need for 435 local representatives.”

Some of the best congressional reforms would actually overturn previous efforts at reform. Banning earmarks, for example, helped make Congress less effective by eliminating a means by which lawmakers could forge coalitions. “I would have done a lot for Obama if I got $30 million [for a local road],” one Republican ex-lawmaker told FMC, according to their report. The APSA report also recommended bringing back earmarks, citing the potential legislative benefits and the broad anecdotal support among members. The ban, they noted, only changed who decides which projects get funded. “Supporters [of ending the ban] note that eliminating earmarks has neither reduced overall spending nor eliminated political decision making,” the APSA report noted. “Instead, the ban has only shifted power to the executive branch, since project-level decisions now get made by agency bureaucrats rather than by legislators.”

After Republicans took the House in the 1994 midterms, Newt Gingrich and his allies enacted a wave of “reforms” that instead undermined Congress as an institution. Gingrich shortened the legislative week so that lawmakers could spend more time running for reelection in their home districts, which left far less time for actual lawmaking and legislative work. He oversaw deep cuts in member and committee staff budgets and closed Congress’s Office of Technology Assessment, leaving lawmakers reliant on the executive branch and think tanks for policy development and analysis. Even the FreedomWorks report recognized that these changes, billed as part of an effort to fix Washington, only made things worse.

Perhaps Gingrich’s worst contribution to Congress was the deep cultural shift he represented. He helped inaugurate an era where legislative battles became zero-sum fights between the two parties, where performative antics replaced substantive achievements as a means for political success, and where the base urge to hold power eclipsed all other considerations. In the FMC report, ex-lawmakers complained that the constant pressure to hold campaign events and solicit contributions from donors left little time for actual legislative work. “You are always raising money, and you’re always dialing for dollars,” said one. “It’s a constant thing.” The need to raise money, said another, limits time members have for socializing. It also takes away time and energy from what members can do “for their district, or their own community.” Added another, “You’re working on fundraising when you go home a lot. You’re working over here, you go across the street, you make phone calls, you do whatever you gotta do.”

One even argued that a reason why leadership frowns upon open rules—allowing amendments on the floor—is it would limit “time to go across the street” to call centers where they raise money. “The closed rule accommodates the money in politics” by giving members time to fundraise. “You have all these members of Congress sitting over there in these call centers like a bunch of middle-level telemarketers dialing for dollars instead of doing the work of the Congress.”

Gingrich can’t be blamed for all of these woes, of course. Twenty-four-hour cable networks, as well as the rise of the internet and social media, helped transform Congress from a legislative body into a theatrical stage for firing up the base and catching donors’ attention. Hyperpolarization left lawmakers with little incentive to compromise with one another and even less ground upon which they could cooperate at all. The GOP’s zeal for voter suppression and partisan gerrymandering over the past decade left its legislators more beholden to a small primary electorate instead of their constituents as a whole. And the Roberts Court’s gutting of campaign-finance laws fueled an arms race in donations among lawmakers, leaving them even more beholden to wealthy and well-connected contributors.

All of that brings us to the central problem with congressional reform. Members of Congress could hire more staff, allow more bill amendments, spend more time in Washington, and get to know each other better. Deeper structural reforms—abolishing gerrymandering, for example, or passing sweeping campaign-finance reform—are theoretically feasible but incredibly difficult to enact in practice. And while individual lawmakers could try to take personal steps to improve Capitol Hill’s culture, Congress can’t actually abolish Fox News or Twitter, and no legislation or rule change could reverse the broader shifts in American politics that brought the country to this point.

It’s hard to not feel despondent about the future of the American experiment after taking stock of its self-inflicted wounds. But that doesn’t make the task of repairing it any less vital. The status quo, where billionaire-backed lawmakers complain about the national debt while millions of Americans prepare to be evicted, is no longer sustainable. A half-functioning Congress may not be enough to prevent or alleviate what America is about to go through. But it’s hard to imagine that it will do a worse job than the Congress we already have.