Only Congress Can Fix Congress. Here's How.

Only Congress Can Fix Congress. Here's How.

By Angela Evans - November 4, 2013

On Oct. 17, an embarrassing series of budget standoffs and threats to default on the debt came to a temporary stop, at least for a few months. Now what? It seems we have two choices: Continue to bemoan the erosion of the greatest deliberative democratic body and prepare for another round of rancor and stalemate, or find ways Congress can reclaim its role as the entity Americans turn to for solutions to society’s challenges.

We have had our fill of the first. The rhetoric between lawmakers and the White House, and among ourselves -- the citizens -- has become increasingly angry and divisive, creating an atmosphere of conflict and disrespect that has undermined our ability to achieve the common good, much less try to ensure it.

So we can continue to vent, hold our political ideologies sacred, verbally persecute those whose ideas and approaches to government differ from our own, and create political divides that split neighborhoods into convoluted enemy camps. This approach is not only unbecoming of what it is to be an American, it desecrates the legacy we have inherited from those who came before us.

Or, Congress can insist on a new path. Members can decide it is time to review and change the processes they use to debate, fund, and legislate. Some of these processes have failed, some have been exploited, and some simply do not comport with current circumstances. Why not come together like past Congresses and formally examine the obstacles that are causing legislative standoffs?

Congress can start with two processes that are at the root of the freshly-ended government shutdown and debt ceiling expansion. Both are totally within the control of Congress to fix or end: the budget and appropriation processes and the rules, which govern the legislative process.

It has been 20 years since Congress passed all 12 appropriations bills separately and on time for new fiscal years. The result is that government programs are funded through continuing resolutions often implemented in piecemeal fashion for short periods of time with little regard to individual program needs. Continuing resolutions wreak havoc on executive agencies, undermining their ability to efficiently and effectively plan and execute their budgets, especially when final funding is not known until two quarters into that fiscal year. This is not to mention sequestration, through which indiscriminate reductions are applied devoid of any judgment of individual merit.

In terms of the rules, the House has recently used special ones to subvert regular order and provide more power to the majority party to control what bills are considered on the floor. For example, the “Hastert rule,” operational since 2003, requires a majority of the majority party to support the bill before it is moved to the floor for consideration. Or, modifications to standing rules that restrict to the speaker the privilege, once available to all members, of bringing legislation to the floor when there is legislative stalemate between the House and the Senate. These rules, when invoked, basically prevent any bill from being openly debated and voted upon unless the majority party can ensure its passage or defeat.

Unlike the House, the Senate operates under standing rules that have remained relatively stable in large part because a two-thirds vote in the Senate is required to change or eliminate a rule. The filibuster is such a rule. In recent years the filibuster has been used to effectively delay or terminate consideration of legislation and executive and judicial nominations. While there have been discussions to modify the filibuster rule, it remains in force.

For Congress to devote energy to examining and adjusting these processes is risky. The media does not see this as a newsworthy enterprise, the public does not really care how the Congress works -- just if it works, and there is virtually no political payoff for members in the short run. These actions require a long view.

It is time to create a joint committee on the organization of Congress, building upon, and learning from, efforts of similar committees established in 1946, 1970, and 1994 -- times of power struggles between Congress and the president and when acceptance ratings of members by the public were low.

The many congressional reforms proposed these days germinate from outside Congress. But only Congress can reclaim its standing. The ability of members to gather together, assess information, develop ideas, and consider the implications of those ideas are fundamental to maintaining a vibrant republic. Reform is needed in both the governance structure of Congress and the internal decision-making processes that control deliberations.

A year long study, “The Reclamation of the U.S. Congress,” conducted by faculty and graduate students at the University of Texas’ LBJ School of Public Affairs, offers ideas that could jump-start an internal congressional review based on a historical analysis of past self-examination efforts. Some recommendations include providing automatic one-year funding authority at the prior year’s levels when appropriations have not been enacted prior to Sept. 30, requiring all appropriations bills to be considered on the floor without amendment and with an up or down vote, creating an independent commission to conduct regular comprehensive reviews of all tax and mandatory spending bills, and instituting a sunset review of all executive and legislative agencies, similar to what is done in Texas.

While the study analyzes a range of reform options, it also addresses the enduring tensions and forces intrinsic to the lawmaking role of Congress. These challenges are not new -- they derive from basic constitutional responsibilities assigned to this legislative body, including honoring the rights of the minority while advancing the will of the majority.

Congress, if it maintains a thorough and rigorous dedication to improve alongside a focus on examining suggestions for reform, can begin the process of restoring confidence in the institution. There is much at stake, not only for the lawmakers, but for the American people at large. 

Angela Evans is a clinical professor of policy at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at The University of Texas at Austin and former deputy director of the Congressional Research Service.

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