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Congress finally stands up for itself

Will a committee mark a new start for Capitol Hill?

House Of Representatives Convenes For First Session Of 2019 To Elect Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) As Speaker Of The House
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi holds the gavel during the first session of the 116th Congress at the Capitol on January 3, 2019.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Last week, for once, the political world focused on Congress. We heard about Nancy Pelosi’s return as speaker; the large, diverse freshman class in the House of Representatives; and the controversial comments by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib.

But less attention was given to a proposal adopted by a 418-12 House vote, which created the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, chaired by Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-WA). The committee won’t have legislative authority, but it could mark a shift in Congress’s role in our political system.

This political moment offers an unusual opportunity for Congress to assert itself. The past three decades have seen the revival of the “imperial presidency,” as chief executives of both parties have shaken off the restraints imposed upon them in the 1970s. More recently, Congress has reduced its own ability to make policy and defend its constitutional role. For example, as speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich cut funding for the legislative support agencies (including abolishing the Office of Technology Assessment) and reduced the power of committees.

But the midterm elections have produced a large freshman class, mostly Democrats, many of whom have pledged to rein in the Trump administration. In the mid-1970s, the combination of unpopular presidents and an assertive Congress led to a series of efforts to rein in the legislative branch.

Congress has sought to modernize itself before. Executive power increased dramatically in the 1930s and 1940s, as the New Deal and World War II tended to concentrate power in the presidency. In addition, the growth of government created a sprawling bureaucracy that Congress was ill-suited to oversee.

In response, the APSA Committee on Congress issued a series of recommendations in 1945, which included professionalizing Congress by increasing salaries and retirement benefits for members. But it also called for improving Congress’s access to expertise by expanding committee and member staff as well as the then-infant legislative support agencies.

They also called for rationalizing the then-sprawling committee system. Most of the committee’s recommendations were adopted by the Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress, and, in turn, passed by Congress in the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946.

Some of the committee’s recommendations — creating a legislative budget process, reducing the role of seniority — were not accepted at the time but were implemented in the 1970s.

The Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970 did not have the same impact as its predecessor, but it contributed to the shift in power away from committee chairs that would characterize that decade. It also led to the public recording of votes on amendments. Another attempt at legislative reorganization in 1993 and ’94 fell apart due to inter-chamber conflicts and disagreements among House Democrats.

To that end, what should be the goals of legislative modernization today?

To strengthen Congress’s capacity to deliberate: The highly centralized, intensely partisan Congress of the past generation has lost much of its ability to consider policy alternatives. Individual members often find that their duties are mostly limited to raising funds and voting the party line. The decline of institutional expertise has made Congress dependent on outside, often self-interested, sources of information.

To allow Congress to live up to its constitutional responsibilities: Power has flowed away from Capitol Hill for at least three decades. Given the current dysfunction of the executive branch, the time is right for Congress to assert itself once more.

To free Congress from dependence on lobbyists: Lobbyists have a legitimate role in our political system, but Congress has become too reliant on their expertise. Low salaries for staff have led too many talented young people to leave Capitol Hill for K Street, robbing Congress of valuable expertise.

To reduce partisanship — or at least to manage it better: Strengthening committees’ role in the legislative process could open the door for more legislation that crosses party lines. It could also give more rank-and-file members constructive roles to play.

The Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress can draw upon a growing community of scholars and activists committed to improving legislative capacity. They can be found at entities such as the Bipartisan Policy Center, the Legislative Branch Capacity Working Group, Demand Progress, the Congressional Management Foundation, the Resilient Democracy Coalition, the New America Foundation, the Democracy Fund, and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. Some of the ideas that have been popular among the legislative capacity community include:

  • Revitalizing the legislative support agencies, including bringing back the Office of Technology Assessment.
  • Expanding and professionalizing congressional staff, particularly on committees.
  • Strengthening the role of committees in the legislative process, reversing the continuing centralization of power, especially in the House of Representatives.
  • Bringing back earmarks.
  • Improving Congress’s access to information technology.

The establishment of the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress is only one step in restoring the legislative branch to its appropriate role in our political system. But it is important that, during its first week in session, the new House of Representatives has shown that it cares about expanding its capacity to govern.

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