The Russian actor Boris Marshalov has been quoted as observing, “Congress is so strange. A man gets up to speak and says nothing. Nobody listens—and then everybody disagrees.”
Some would argue that this just as true today as it was in the first half of the 20th century when Marshalov said it—perhaps even more accurate. Unfortunately, an anemic deliberative process would betray Congress’ purpose: Representing Americans’ viewpoints and developing policies through reasoned discussion.
Recognizing the importance of thoughtful, critical dialogue, the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress held a hearing last Wednesday, February 5, to examine how to improve deliberation in the House.
“We know that the Framers never intended for extraordinarily consequential decisions to be made by one person or one branch of government,” said Select Committee Chair Derek Kilmer (D-WA). Rather, the House was intended to be the closest to the people, allowing Members to represent their opinions, debate and then come to policy decisions.
However, Kilmer also noted that it was a difficult process.
“Compromise necessitates tradeoffs, which means that no one is going to be 100% happy with the final product but losing out on policy goals is at least tempered by having a say in the process,” Kilmer said, also noting that it takes requires time and means Members must explore all sides of an issue.
The deliberative process “is quite different from conjuring up quick political zingers to throw back and forth,” said Kilmer, who touted the Select Committee’s ability to talk about difficult issues and come to a consensus.
Select Committee Vice Chair Tom Graves (R-GA) said that a recent opinion poll showed 93 percent of Americans think incivility is a problem in the country—and they blame politicians and Congress.
“It seems like we have a lot of work to do–a lot ahead,” Graves said. “It’s important that we continue to identify ways to improve the process so the legislation that we produce is better for the American people.
James Curry, an associate professor of political science at the University of Utah; Carolyn Lukensmeyer, the executive director emerita of the National Institute for Civil Discourse; and Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute testified before the Select Committee.
Many advocates of congressional reform have called for a return to “regular order”—a term that generally refers to working legislation through the committee system and then considering it on the Floor of the House or Senate, where Members are permitted to offer amendments. In recent decades, congressional leaders have taken more control over the process, bypassing committees and limiting the opportunities for amendments on the Floor.
While many would like regular order to become the norm again, Curry was skeptical of this effort. According to him, some of the perceived problems with Congress—like the extent to which gridlock is occurring—are overstated. Additionally, he noted that open processes can lead to partisan outcomes, such as when a poison pill amendment is offered in a debate. By contrast, “unorthodox lawmaking”—which is marked by strong leadership control, diminished committee involvement, or closed Floor processes—can lead to largely bipartisan votes, like the various omnibus appropriations bills or the 2013 fiscal cliff legislation. Unorthodox legislating allows leaders to prevent obstructionism, speak freely behind closed doors, and negotiate deals that are beyond the reach of committees or rank-and-file.
To limit obstructionism but still allow for a more open amendment process, Curry suggested eliminating roll call votes in the Committee of the Whole, where amendments are normally considered. Eliminating roll call votes would mean Members would not be put on record as voting for or against an amendment in the Committee of the Whole, so partisans would be less likely to offer a poison pill amendment. Amendments that were agreed to could later be voted on with a recorded vote in the House, which the public could see, though it is less likely that a poison pill would make it to that stage of the process.
In addition to eliminating roll call votes in the Committee of the Whole, Curry proposed allowing for more opportunities for Members to interact in an official capacity but away from cameras. Members need opportunities where they can get to know and learn from each other without feeling the need to play to an audience. Congressional delegations, official overseas fact-finding trips (shortened to CODELs) are an example of one opportunity for Members to get to know their colleagues better. The government could create similar trips within the country so Members could learn more about domestic policy outside DC. (These would be akin to committee field hearings.)
According to Lukensmeyer, “when people begin to behave badly toward one another, without exception there are underlying structural or systemic issues that must be addressed.” While many of the issues are beyond the Select Committee’s mandate, she said some changes on the “micro-level” were possible. For instance, she suggested that committees hold annual off-site retreats where Members and their families could get to know each other on a more personal basis, which would foster respect and allow them to work towards common solutions more easily.
Lukensmeyer suggested changes within the committee and hearing rooms as well. For instance, Member seating should alternate between parties. She said that in 2019 the Maine House of Representatives and Senate both experimented with alternate party seating in their Chambers, and legislators reported growing new relationships and introducing additional bipartisan legislation. Likewise, she suggested that for some committee hearings, Members and witnesses be seated at round tables rather than Members being seated at a raised dais, facing witnesses at a table several feet away. Such an arrangement would foster more dialogue and “limit prosecutorial grandstanding.” Ornstein also suggested that committees use round tables for some hearings to facilitate “structured or semi-structured conversations—but with the emphasis on the conversations.” Another way to restructure committee hearings is to provide 30-minute blocks for groups of Members to question witnesses rather than provide each Member 5 minutes individually as is done today. Providing longer blocks would make for a more coherent hearing and allow Members to probe issues more deeply than the current format. He also recommended that the House institute weekly prime-time Oxford-style debates on the Floor. Among other things, these debates would show the public that the Members are seriously engaged with the issues at hand. Another benefit is that they would show that some issues do not fall along partisan lines.
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.