Members of Congress discussed ways to strengthen the Legislative Branch at a Members’ Day hearing on proposals to change House rules in the 116th Congress on Thursday. A common theme running throughout the proposals and discussion was the wide-scale breakdown of the legislative process and how to strengthen Congress, especially through a committee on legislative reform.
Throughout the hearings Members, lamented the decline of “regular order,” a term used to describe what can be construed as the textbook legislative process: working a bill through a committee, bringing a bill to the Floor under open processes, and the like. They criticized limitations on amendments, the routine practice of waiving rules, the sidelining of committees, and other elements of the contemporary legislative process. Both Republicans and Democrats in the hearing expressed a desire to return to regular order.
“We don’t follow regular order around here very much, and it detracts from the quality of the product that comes before the body,” said Representative Bradley Byrne, a Republican Rules Committee Member from Alabama. He noted that trust was essential to an effective Congress and regular order, but it was “missing.” According to him, the House needs to find ways to restore trust. “Trust has been breached on both sides—I’ve seen it myself—but trust is not something we can enforce by rules,” he said.
One of the proposed ways to restore Congress was the creation of some kind of committee to study reform proposals. (The Congressional Institute has long advocated the creation of a Joint Committee on Congressional Reform as a means of advancing bipartisan changes to House and Senate procedures.) Representative John Sarbanes, a Democrat from Maryland, was the first to make such a suggestion. “There’s a lot of good Members on both sides, with good ideas, but they’re struggling under what is a dysfunctional legislative process to serve their constituents and to serve the nation,” he said He noted that many groups within Congress and outside have been pushing for reform over the past few years. He also cited the example of previous congressional reform committees. He suggested creating a House select committee, which would not include the Senate.
Representative Ami Bera, a Democrat from California, also spoke about a committee on reform. “We don’t have to guess on the fact that we’re losing the public trust,” he said. He said rules changes should not be made “hastily,” but there was an “urgency” to creating such a committee, also suggesting that the Senate should participate. He said the committee could propose “broad goals” without necessarily being “prescriptive.”
Congress currently has a Joint Select Committee on Budget and Appropriations Process Reform. It was created in February as part of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018. It is tasked with making recommendations to how Congress arrives at its fiscal decisions. The committee is required to report recommendations by the end of November. If the budget process joint committee succeeds Congress could see it as a trial run for a joint committee to reform the Legislative Branch as a whole.
Aside from the Joint Select Committee on Budget and Appropriations Process Reform, another effort to create a reform committee is underway. H. Con. Res. 28, a concurrent resolution to create a joint select committee on congressional reform, was introduced in February 2017 by Republican Representative Darin LaHood and Democratic Representative Daniel Lipinski, both of Illinois. There are 67 co-sponsors, including Representative Bradley Byrne and Representative Ken Buck, both Republican members of the Rules Committee. Congress has convened three joint select committees on congressional reform, called the Joint Committees on the Organization of Congress, since 1945. Each of these committees have made recommendations that Congress has later adopted in attempts to modernize its operations. More information on previous Joint Committees on the Organization of Congress and ideas on how to reform the Legislative Branch can be found at the Congressional Institute’s Congressional Reform Project page.
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Mark Strand is the President of the Congressional Institute and Timothy Lang is a research director. The Sausage Factory blog is a Congressional Institute project dedicated to explaining parliamentary procedure, Congressional politics, and other issues pertaining to the Legislative Branch.