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Can Congress fix itself?

Congress has a resources problem and a structural problem. Maybe a new committee can help.

The US flag flies in front of the US Capitol dome on December 24, 2008 in Washington, DC.
The US flag flies in front of the US Capitol dome on December 24, 2008, in Washington, DC.
Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images

It’s already been a busy political year, so if you didn’t register the news that the US House of Representatives formed a Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress (or your eyes glazed over at the generic name), I get it. If I weren’t deep into the weeds of congressional reform, I might have skipped past the news too.

But it’s worth your attention, I promise. If the committee does its job well, it could turn out to be one of the most important developments of 2019.

A committee is formed. Huzzah.

“Congress is broken.” So goes a mainstay narrative of contemporary American politics, and for good reason. In our system of government, Congress should be the truly representative forum where advocates for the nation’s diverse people come together to deliberate and compromise on public-spirited solutions to hard problems.

Congress today is not that. It is instead primarily a performative forum for partisan fighting ahead of the (always around the corner) next election. It is also a place where lawmakers sometimes get together to vote between their day job of raising campaign money and making made-for-YouTube speeches and their night job of building a national profile on cable news and/or Twitter. Congress has delegated far too many powers to the executive branch, and let far too many outsiders, especially lobbyists, do its most important thinking.

In short, the first branch of government is not working as it should. So it’s with some cautious optimism, but optimism nonetheless, that we should greet this new committee. The committee’s 12 members (six from each party) are now in place, and hopefully a real budget will follow soon (currently the committee has just $50,000 to get going). Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-WA), a former McKinsey consultant from the Seattle suburbs with a reformist streak, will lead the committee. Rep. Tom Graves (R-GA) will be the vice chair.

Can the committee succeed? It depends on how we define success.

The committee begins its work with some big limits. It is initially authorized for only one year and can only issue recommendations supported by two-thirds of its members. The Senate has not created a companion committee, and unlike in past congressional reform efforts, this is not a “joint” committee.

If we expect this committee to truly modernize Congress in a year, we’re setting it up for failure. But if we expect the committee to solve a few easy problems, and then catalyze a several-year process of big reform, it may yet succeed.

Plucking the low-hanging fruit: more expert staff, better support, and better technology

The most obvious recommendation the committee could make would be to give Congress its brain back: to invest in real knowledge and expertise, in personal offices and especially in committees, by spending more money on staff.

For years, I’ve been singing a familiar refrain: Congress is weak because it doesn’t invest in its own internal staff resources. Salaries are too low, and demands on staff are too high to justify a low salary for long. Washington is an expensive city, especially for families. And lobbying and executive branch agency jobs pay better. For decades, Congress has been de-investing in its own internal capacity while the executive branch and especially corporate lobbyists have beefed up tremendously. This needs to change.

Today, most congressional offices lack real in-house expertise. Instead, they are short-staffed by a rotating cast of enthusiastic, bright, but ultimately inexperienced and overworked 20-somethings who have to turn elsewhere to cover up their own lack of expertise. Often this means letting lobbyists write the bills, or at least turning them for help with which bills to write and how to write them. Committees are better than individual offices on expertise, but still severely lacking.

The numbers are depressing: Private interests (predominantly large business) spend about $3.4 billion a year on reported lobbying, and probably twice that much on lobbying-related activities. Compare that to what Congress spends on itself: The 2018 federal budget included $2.1 billion to fund the entire House ($1.2 billion) and the Senate ($919 million). That, by the way, is just 0.05 percent of a $4.094 trillion total federal budget.

Congress could also spend much more on support agencies, like the Congressional Research Service (CRS) and the Government Accountability Office (GAO). These are trusted information sources within Congress that have been shedding staff for decades. Boosting them would make Congress much smarter and more powerful.

Another obvious recommendation, perhaps the lowest-hanging fruit of all, is technological modernization. For example, Congress could create better tools for congressional offices to collect, organize, and respond to constituent calls, emails, and social media, which take up considerable resources for many offices.

In short, Congress has an obvious resources problem. And the easiest way to fix a resources problem is to provide more resources, and/or create efficiencies to free up some existing resources. The low-hanging fruit is there, within easy reach.

But what if Congress’s problems are bigger?

A skeptic might read the above section and respond: Add all the resources you want. You’re still adding resources to a dysfunctional organization. What Congress needs is a major reorg. Anything else is merely taking buckets to a flood when the levees have broken.

That skeptic is me. I’ve long argued that expert staffing would make Congress a more effective and stronger institution. But over the past two years, I’ve become less convinced this will have the transformative effects I’d once hoped. I’m still all for adding resources. But I’m not convinced more resources will solve the bigger problems.

When we talk about congressional dysfunction, we often talk about polarization, gridlock. We often contrast today with nostalgia for a long-lost “regular order.” In an earlier time (before the 1990s), Congress operated in a much more decentralized, committee-oriented way, with much more bipartisan lawmaking. Committees held hearings, developed policies through extended deliberation and negotiation, and built broad bipartisan support, and those bills came up for floor votes. The process was messy, incoherent, and inefficient. But in retrospect, it generated a much more functional and responsive Congress than the one we have today, and passed far more landmark legislation.

Today, committees are weak and party leadership is strong. Party leaders reward loyal partisans with key committee positions, and then those chairs demonstrate their loyalty by using their positions to raise money for the party and follow the guidance of party leaders. Most important bills now bypass committees altogether, written instead in the leadership offices behind closed doors (see: the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017). The result is a non-deliberative process where almost all votes are partisan votes, cast with an eye to the partisan brand ahead of the next election.

And because power is centralized (in both chambers, but especially in the House), control of the chamber is extremely valuable. This makes elections even more important, which encourages parties to draw even sharper contrasts with each other to win the next election. This makes governing even harder, since our political institutions require a large deal of compromise.

This contradiction — between campaigning and governing, between drawing sharp contrasts and forging hard compromises — is at the root of much of today’s congressional dysfunction. We have winner-take-all electoral institutions oriented around the principle of majority rule, and compromise-oriented political institutions the framers designed to prevent majority tyranny. It’s a terrible mix.

In discussions of congressional reform, an obvious suggestion often emerges to the centralization of power problem: More power to the committees! Decentralize the process! If Congress worked in a more bottom-up, committee-oriented fashion, it might not matter so much which side had the majority anymore. Committees might operate more independently to solve problems in a bipartisan fashion, without worrying about whether Democrats or Republicans would gain.

Certainly leadership-driven agenda-control drives much of the observed polarization in congressional voting, by keeping issues that divide majority parties off the voting agenda. A more open process could lead to more partisan splits and perhaps more bipartisanship, and eventually a more functional Congress.

But here’s the problem: The decentralized, “regular order” Congress that thrived from the 1960s through the late 1980s was still bottom-up because the parties were loose overlapping coalitions. Democrats were a broad coalition of liberals and conservatives. Republicans also had many moderate-to-liberal members in the party (basically, the entire New England Republican delegation, which was once a sizable faction).

These broad diverse coalitions made for weak party leadership, since the only thing most members in both parties agreed on was that they should be free to pursue their own agenda within the party. But they made for lots of bipartisan legislation, because the loose coalitions made for large areas of substantive cross-partisan agreement.

But in the 1970s, as liberal Democrats became the dominant faction in Congress, they pushed for internal reforms that gave party leaders more power.

Ah, the irony: The last time Congress went through serious internal reforms, in the 1970s, the problem reformers wanted to solve was committees having too much power, rather than too little. Liberal Democrats supported stronger leadership because they saw conservative committee chairs blocking liberal legislation. These chairs earned their spots through the seniority system, which benefited members from solid Democratic seats in the South. Empowering party leaders seemed like the way to bring order and responsibility to a disorganized Congress.

Today, things are very different. Members today complain about leadership having too much, rather than too little, power.

And in theory, individual rank-and-file members might want a more committee-oriented process. After all, more autonomous and stronger committees would mean more opportunities for lawmakers to take part in actual lawmaking, which is presumably what they came to Washington to do.

But strong, autonomous committees mean weak party leadership. And much as they may complain, most rank-and-file members depend on party leadership to help them campaign, to maintain the party brand, and, most of all, to protect them from having to take tough votes. Most members today arrived in Washington as partisan fighters, with enthusiasm for a partisan agenda. They also fear what would happen in their congressional primary if they stray from partisan fighting. Much as voters might complain about the partisan fighting in Washington, the only thing voters like less than partisan fighting is their side compromising.

Trying to impose a decentralized, committee-oriented, “regular order” process on today’s highly partisan politics won’t work. Process can’t overcome incentives and motivation. Any parent who has tried to get their child to eat a healthy, vegetable-oriented dinner through sheer force of rules knows this.

Consider the filibuster: In theory, the filibuster should be a forcing mechanism for bipartisanship, by requiring 60 votes in the Senate. But it isn’t. It just produces gridlock with divided parties. Partisans on both sides would rather have campaign issues than legislative compromises. The problem isn’t the procedure. The problem is that all the political incentives reward members of Congress for not working out solutions on most issues.

Congress has a resources problem and an organizational problem

If my structural analysis is correct, the implication is depressing: The only way to fix Congress is to restructure the political incentives driving congressional behavior. Improving resources and staffing can make some modest improvements. A Congress that thinks more for itself and depends less on lobbyists and the executive branch would be a big improvement over the status quo. But for Congress to actually function as we expect it should, we need to think bigger.

Here is where I’d get into a longer rant about the corrosive role of campaign finance on politics, and how it directs members of Congress into thinking foremost how they can raise money for their next election and for their party. Here is where I’d get into a longer rant about the perverse nature of our winner-take-all Congressional elections, and how this system reinforced a divided political geography where one party represents rural and exurban America and its value, and another party represents urban and professional suburban America and its very different values, and the two compete over a tiny battleground in between, with no incentives for compromise. Maybe we should also eliminate congressional primaries. (This rant is still under construction.)

But the point I wish to make here is broader: Congress has two problems. Congress has a resources problem, and Congress has a structural/organizational problem.

The resources problem is a no-brainer, and if the select committee does anything, it should solve the resources problem. It can expand budgets to hire more and more experienced staff, especially on committees. It can invest in support agencies, like CRS and GAO. And it can wring efficiencies from modern technology to free up more resources.

The structural/organizational problems are far bigger, and no committee can solve it in a year. But in a year, a committee can ask the right big questions. It can create a forum and foundation for understanding the pathologies of the political system in which Congress and its members operate, and why small procedural fixes are pointless.

Congress has reformed itself in the past. But in the past, reforms involved either adding more staff, reorganizing committee jurisdictions, or reordering power inside the institution. These reforms were difficult, and the history of congressional reform is littered with half-measures and failures. Any attempt to reorder power in Congress goes up against the problem that those who have power rarely use that power to support reforms that would give them less power.

But two things are unusual about today: 1) With one exception (the 1890-1910 period of “czar” rule in the House), leadership has never been so centralized, leaving so many rank-and-file members frustrated and powerless; and 2) the existential uncertainty around the future of American democracy has never been this high. The dysfunctional Trump presidency has put an exclamation point on this, but Congress has been dysfunctional for almost three decades.

Members of Congress are deeply frustrated with how Congress works, and they understand it is broken. The problem is clear. And if this committee doesn’t think big about how to fix Congress, who else will?