Happy Election Day, America!
By now, most of the country is probably sick this campaign that’s gone on for years now, to say nothing of the reds and blues tearing each other apart.
New research from a Congressional Institute-Winston Group study shows that Americans want concrete policy solutions, not just rhetoric, from office holders. All those elected to the 117th Congress should keep this in mind. Members might find it easier to rely on political slogans or they might be at a loss for how to proceed to find solutions, but the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress can show them how to make progress.
The Modernization Committee was created at the beginning of this Congress amid a widespread concern among Members and the public that the Legislative Branch needed to reform, modernize, and more effectively carry out its constitutional responsibilities. Given wide public dissatisfaction, it’s no surprise that the House overwhelmingly voted to create the Select Committee.
Despite the almost unanimous support for the creation of the Select Committee, a few factors could have doomed it. It was created following a change in control of the House, which can be an occasion for heightened partisanship and incivility. It was created during the longest government shutdown in American history, the result of sharp partisan differences between the House, Senate, and White House. Then, of course, there was the impeachment of a President. Not to mention, the Select Committee needed a 2/3 supermajority to pass any recommendations. Would anyone have been deeply surprised if it didn’t accomplish anything?
Despite the various factors arrayed against the Select Committee, it produced results. The House gave the Select Committee an incredibly wide jurisdiction, allowing it to make recommendations on virtually every aspect of the legislative process. That’s a daunting job description. The Select Committee took this task and succeeded in issuing 97 recommendations. These recommendations touched on areas like how Congress can discharge its constitutional duties more effectively, how it can make better use of technology, how it can create a more meaningful budget process, and how the Legislative Branch can be more transparent with the public. The Select Committee deserves special recognition for being the first congressional reform committee to see any of its recommendations adopted while the committee was still meeting.
How the Select Committee accomplished this is equally important to what it did. Institutional reform is incredibly difficult. It would have been easier for the Select Committee to do nothing than anything. It’s almost a surprise that fights didn’t break out for all to see. Instead, the Select Committee worked with comity. In fact, during its hearings, Members frequently commented on how civil and bipartisan their work was. Chairman Derek Kilmer, a Democrat from Washington state, and Vice Chairman Tom Graves, a Republican from Georgia, set a cooperative tone and backed it up by bipartisan experiments such as a retreat for all Select Committee members at the beginning of their work and alternating seating by party during hearings, rather than having Republicans and Democrats on opposite ends of the dais. As Chairman Kilmer liked to say, they were not wearing “red jerseys” and “blue jerseys” but “Fix Congress jerseys.”
It would be way too optimistic for anyone to think that the Select Committee would take care of all Congress’ issues in two years. There’s much more to be done—after all, the House is only half of Congress. To continue this important effort, Congress and its leaders should aim even bigger, by creating a Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress.
Over the last 80 years, Congress has created Joint Committees on the Organization of Congress three times to study and recommend ways the House and Senate could coordinate to improve the Legislative Branch as a whole. These resulted in important reforms to Congress, including the Legislative Reorganization Acts of 1946 and 1970. The last time one met was in the 103rd Congress, over 25 years ago. Surely Congress is long overdue for another Joint Committee.
A new Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress would be a difficult undertaking, but there’s enough common ground for the parties to work out some areas of agreement. Both parties can agree on the need for Congress to control the country’s purse strings. But with the earmark moratorium in place, this power has positively flown to the Executive Branch. Both parties realize this, and there’s a greater appetite for congressionally directed spending these days. For instance, though the House Rules Committee is normally quite partisan, at the recent Members’ Day hearing to discuss rules changes for the 117th Congress, there were thoughtful comments from Members of both parties on why it’s important to have Congress determine how discretionary funds are spent.
A new Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress could take this appetite for increasing Congress’ control over the power of the purse and build upon the work of the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress. The Select Committee has shown a path forward to regain control of the purse strings. They devised a plan for a community-focused grant program (CFGP), which, the Select Committee writes, “is grounded in community input, bipartisan support, and unprecedented transparency.” In addition to promoting these goods and Congress’ Article I authority, it will also create a more effective budget process since it will build wider coalitions for spending legislation. In devising the CFGP, the Select Committee has produced an important solution to an issue that has vexed Congress for some years now.
Successful organizations reward ingenuity and initiative, and Congress should do no less. Let’s see the Select Committee’s work continue, and even expand to both sides of the Capitol.
Mark Strand is the President of the Congressional Institute and Timothy Lang is the Institute’s 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.