The Power of Juniority

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Come senators and congressmen/ please heed the call’/ don’t stand in the doorways/ don’t block up the hall/ … For the times they are a-changin’.

It’s been a long time since Congress bothered to heed Bob Dylan’s call, as senators and congressmen have spent most of the last decade blocking up the doorways and halls and leaving our nation’s problems unsolved.

Many Americans have understandably lost faith in the political process and they have little hope that Congress can deal with challenges ranging from our spiraling debt to a broken immigration system to an economy that simply isn’t producing enough good-paying jobs. Now it appears we’re headed for another government shutdown, as Congress is once again at loggerheads over how to fund the basic operations of government.

People could be forgiven for thinking that the situation in Washington is hopeless. But the fact is that recently – against all odds and predictions – our formerly moribund Congress has shown signs of life. In fact, the Bipartisan Policy Center released a new “Healthy Congress Index” with a variety of measures showing that this Congress is functioning better than it had in previous sessions.

Some commentators have explained this welcome development by noting that congressional leaders appear to be embracing a more inclusive approach to governance (e.g. allowing more amendments from the minority party and re-empowering committee chairmen to manage the writing, debating and moving of legislation). But something else is happening beyond a mere resurrection of regular order in the chambers.

The members themselves are different.

This Congress features members with less tenure and less tolerance for the mindless partisanship that has become standard practice in D.C. Many of these newer members are results-oriented and are banding together in unconventional alliances to tackle problems in areas including criminal justice, infrastructure and health care. Some of them are military veterans who are used to collaboration and teamwork as a way of survival.

Call it the Power of Juniority.

New members are pushing change from the bottom up, building mostly ad hoc coalitions at the moment but showing real potential to create a movement of problem solvers that is more organized and enduring.

Consider that this Congress features 130 members who have served just four years or less, 30 more than in 2007. The Senate’s share of new members (one term or less) has grown from 36 to 46 during the same time period.

The early returns from these new members are promising.

For example, Democratic Sen. Cory Booker has joined with numerous Republicans on legislation to reform America’s broken criminal justice system. He’s worked with Sen. Rand Paul on a bill to make it easier for nonviolent offenders to rejoin society and find work; with Sen. Mike Lee to ban the solitary confinement of juveniles; and with Sen. Ted Cruz to give federal judges more discretion in sentencing those convicted of non-violent drug offenses.

In discussing the bipartisan legislation he has introduced, Sen. Booker told me, “I’ll work with anyone to get things accomplished. It’s not about the party, it’s about the problem. It’s about fixing a broken system that costs too much and ruins too many lives, families and futures. It’s heartening to see more members searching for common ground to get things done for the people who elected us, specifically, to get things done.”

Then there is John Delaney, a freshman Democratic representative from Maryland, who is spearheading an innovative effort in the House to repair the country’s crumbling infrastructure.

His Partnership to Build America Act would allocate funds from corporate tax reform to funnel $150 billion into the dwindling Highway Transportation Fund. There are currently 42 Democrats and 44 Republicans signed on to the bill, making it one of the most widely supported bipartisan efforts in the House. 

Promising developments are even happening in health care, an area where you might imagine there is an unbridgeable divide between the parties. The 21st Century Cures Act – which was co-sponsored by 73 representatives who have been in office for four years or less – would modernize the regulatory process at the National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration to help accelerate the development of treatments for debilitating diseases such as Alzheimer’s. This one disease alone could cost the U.S. economy almost $20 trillion by 2050 and Congress fortunately recognizes the urgent need for action. The 21st Century Cures Act is now awaiting a Senate vote after passing the House by a comfortable 344-77 margin.

Of course, none of the above bills have yet become law, which speaks to the difficult work ahead. Moreover, Congress hasn’t made much progress on the big-ticket reform items like entitlement and immigration reform or a fix to our Rube Goldberg-esque tax system. Still, this nascent cooperation among the junior members and their other congressional colleagues shouldn’t be discounted. According to the noted congressional reporter Charlie Cook, “Trust and progress [in Congress] on small things can lead to trust and progress on medium-sized and eventually big things.”

The junior members of Congress aren’t just pairing off on isolated pieces of legislation either. Many have also joined the growing No Labels problem-solvers group, which features over 60 members of Congress from both parties who have been meeting regularly to build trust and collaboration across the aisle and to search for areas of bipartisan cooperation.

It’s certainly too early to suggest, in the words of Dylan, that the old order is rapidly fading.” The hyper-partisans retain plenty of power on Capitol Hill and the imminent government shutdown reminds us that Congress remains a deeply dysfunctional institution that will not be repaired easily or quickly. But for the first time in a long time, it feels like the times in Congress “they are a-changin’.”

And we have the growing power of juniority to thank.

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