an illustration of the U.S. capitol sinking into quicksand
Edmon de Haro

How to Salvage Congress

When I was elected to the House of Representatives two years ago, I found the problems weren’t as bad as I’d expected—they were worse.

If you are among the 11 percent of Americans who believe that everything in Congress is going swimmingly, then save some time and stop reading right now. (But first, please share whatever experimental drugs you are on.) But if you are among the 87 percent of people who are concerned about what is going on in Congress, then I have an important message for you: It’s much worse than you think.

On Tuesday, Congress reconvenes after a month of campaigning. Lame-duck legislation will likely get the most attention, but a more important debate will occur among surviving incumbents and new members in each caucus about how to organize for the next Congress. This debate about rules and process, more than any Russia-related investigation or wall-funding-fueled shutdown, will determine whether Congress can avoid two years of dysfunction or whether it will continue its slide into irrelevance.

I am a freshman representative from northeastern Wisconsin. When I ran in 2016, I assumed the problem with Congress was the people. I thought most members were either hopelessly unqualified or ruthlessly ambitious. Or probably both. And to be sure, Congress has always had its dunces and its Machiavellis. However, most of the representatives I have gotten to know on both sides of the aisle are smart, patriotic, and hardworking.

I have come to believe that the problem is not the people. The problem is a defective process and a power structure that, whichever party is in charge, funnels all power to leadership and stifles debate and initiative within the ranks. Your average member of Congress, far from being drunk on power, actually has very little of it outside a cable-news studio.

Unfortunately, a structural problem is harder to fix than a people problem. In the House of Representatives, we have an opportunity to get rid of bad people every two years via elections. Reforming the legislative process and realigning incentives is more difficult. The reality is that Congress cannot get anything done because it is not equipped to get anything done. It is no longer a tool suited to its original purpose of making laws and providing oversight. It has instead become a theater used by both parties to stoke the outrage of their base. We must reform the processes and power structures of Congress, or we will further tear our country apart.

There is a catch, though. Not only is talking about congressional reform as a member of Congress likely to make all my colleagues mad; it’s also boring. No one wants to have me on Fox News or MSNBC to discuss the finer points of appropriations versus authorization committees (caravans and Kavanaugh make for better theater). But it’s precisely because congressional processes are boring, byzantine, and bloodless that they can be exploited.

How did an institution that was once admired around the world become so toothless? This sounds almost quaint now, but the Framers were gravely concerned about the risk of legislative predominance. They would be puzzled to see how Congress has squandered its power of the purse by putting most federal spending on autopilot (more than 70 percent today and growing). They would also be shocked to see Congress systematically surrender its constitutional authority on national-security issues to the executive branch. Since the passage—over Richard Nixon’s veto—of the 1973 War Powers Resolution, which was (ironically) intended to rein in the war powers of the president, presidents of both parties have submitted 168 reports to Congress as required under the WPR, but only one president has triggered the requirement for the withdrawal of forces after 60 days without congressional authorization. Both Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump argued that the Authorization for the Use of Military Force, which was passed by Congress one week after 9/11 and never reconsidered since, along with the authority inherent in Article II of the Constitution, gave them the necessary power to kill people around the world who were not born before 9/11 or who belong to groups other than al-Qaeda, without any further act of Congress. Thus, on matters foreign and domestic, the legislative leviathan envisioned by the Framers sits on the sidelines screaming rather than getting in the game.

I suspect the Framers would also be distressed to learn that power has shifted even more dramatically (if out of public view) within the House of Representatives. Starting in the 1970s and accelerating in the 1990s, what power remains within the institution has shifted from members and committees to House leadership. In 1975, the Democrats gave the Steering and Policy Committee the authority to assign House members to specific committees, and they gave the House speaker a mandate to select both the chair and the members of the Rules Committee. When the Republicans gained the House majority in 1994, they continued the transfer of power from committees to House leadership by limiting the terms of committee chairmen, who had previously been able to serve unlimited terms, to six years and by allowing the speaker to disregard seniority in appointing committee chairmen.

Combined with other parliamentary power moves that create end runs around the committee process, this trend has continued in the intervening years. The result is that power in the House has become highly concentrated at the top. Leadership determines which bills come to the floor for a vote, leadership chooses loyal committee chairs so as to ensure that bills opposed by special interests will be killed in committee, and in the event that problematic amendments do make it to the House floor, the Rules Committee—an organ of the speaker—kills them off. The legislation that does pass tends to come in last-second omnibus bills that legislators have no chance to read, let alone debate and amend. The dirty secret is that many House members like this arrangement because it prevents them from having to cast tough votes.

In such a dysfunctional institution, even the most energetic and idealistic legislators are eventually ground down by the realization that in order to advance in Washington, D.C., you have to play the game. This means that you don’t vote against leadership, you don’t question the status quo, and you raise lots of money. If you do all this, maybe one day 10 years from now you, too, can be a subcommittee chair.

If this sounds like no fun, the alternative is to channel your ambition into amassing fame and power outside Congress. This is equally destructive. To see why, conduct a simple experiment: Turn on C-SPAN, where you can watch members of Congress giving speeches to an empty House chamber or parachuting in to deliver talking points during a committee hearing, then disappearing. To call the proceedings Kabuki theater would be an insult to Kabuki theater, because in the House, most of the time the players don’t even bother to memorize their lines.

So how can we start to get stuff done again? Here are three completely nonpartisan reforms for the House of Representatives, none of which would require passing a new law, and each of which would help even a divided Congress become more functional. They are intended as a starting point for debate about this issue and as a foundation for more ambitious reforms.

Change the Congressional Calendar

In order to redirect our energy toward the things Congress is actually supposed to do—oversight and deliberation—legislators need to change how we spend our time. Right now, a traditional congressional workweek involves flying into D.C. on a Monday or Tuesday night for a noncontroversial “suspension” vote (renaming a post office or passing a nonbinding resolution), being in session for two or three days, and then flying home as soon as votes are over on Thursday or Friday morning. As a result, in 2017, members of the House were in session for only 145 out of 261 workdays, far fewer than what the average American works.

This schedule not only costs the taxpayer a lot of money for extraneous back-and-forth travel, but also costs members of Congress time. Those days that are spent in D.C. tend to be crowded with fund-raising for reelection, leaving members little time to develop meaningful relationships, particularly on a bipartisan basis, that might form the foundation for legislative collaboration.

Rather than flying back and forth for two- or three-day workweeks, members of Congress could stay in session for three consecutive weeks, each with at least five full-session days, to be followed by one week back in the district. Not only would this facilitate more time for legislators to legislate, but it would allow them to spend more quality time back in their districts.

Yes, members of Congress would complain—since the 1990s, it has become standard practice not to move one’s family to D.C., for fear of seeming swampy. They might also find attending their committee hearings and reading the bills they vote on more boring than the performance art they currently practice. But boring isn’t necessarily bad. A Congress that simply went about performing its core legislative functions with greater diligence and fewer fund-raisers would be good for the country.

Change How We Choose Committee Chairs

One way to keep rank-and-file members of Congress from rebelling against this schedule change is to give them something meaningful to do while trapped in the swamp. This means granting them more power. Congressional leadership maintains control not only by governing the calendar, but also through the Steering Committee, the body that chooses committee chairmen and committee members. About a quarter of the committee’s votes are controlled by the House speaker and the majority leader, and thus the committee tends to grant chairmanships to members who have demonstrated to the leadership that they are “team players.” One becomes a team player not by demonstrating policy expertise or legislative skill, but by consistently voting with the leadership.

Another way to become a team player is to raise money for the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) or the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC)—the party organizations tasked with winning elections. Top-level committee assignments are generally given to top fund-raisers, and are themselves coveted for how helpful they are to one’s own fund-raising. (If you want to raise a lot of money from Wall Street, get on the Financial Services Committee.) Furthermore, the dues that members have to pay to the NRCC or the DCCC vary in proportion to the fund-raising value of their committees. Thus, an ambitious politician who wants to get on a powerful committee must pay to do so. If this seems like a bizarre pay-to-play scheme, that’s because it is. House leaders may think this scheme is necessary to enforce fund-raising discipline, but in so doing, they channel members’ energy away from legislative work.

One of the simplest ways to get members to burn more calories on their actual jobs would be to have committee members choose their own chairmen. This would change the entire incentive structure in Congress. To have any chance of becoming chairman one day, ambitious members would first need to prove themselves as productive citizens of a committee. Rather than spending all their time dialing for dollars, they would be expected to show up to their committee hearings, to understand their committee’s issues, and to work with their colleagues to advance bills.

Instead of doing the leadership’s bidding, committee chairs would have to exercise their own leadership—by listening to the concerns of their committee members, exercising competent oversight, and forging difficult compromises on complex issues. These effects would be mutually reinforcing. Committee members’ ambitions would flow toward demonstrating legislative competence to their chairman, and the chairman’s ambitions would flow toward responding to his committee members’ legislative concerns.

Streamline Committee Jurisdiction

Some committees almost operate in this way already. I am lucky to serve on the House Armed Services Committee, where every year, after months of oversight and debate, we mark up the National Defense Authorization Act. The committee has its share of vicious disagreements and some drama, but for 58 years in a row, the final bill has passed with an overwhelmingly bipartisan margin because the committee members feel the process is honest. They also feel a sense of duty, both to the defense of the country and to the tradition of the committee.

But this is the exception that proves the rule. The current division between authorization (how much money can be spent and what it can be spent on) and appropriations (actually giving the money to the appropriate program or agency) goes back to the days of John Quincy Adams. But in recent years it has become a recipe for shutdowns, continuing resolutions, and gigantic omnibus bills. Even when we authorizers devote ourselves to our committee work, we are still at the mercy of the all-powerful Appropriations Committee (and by extension, House leadership), which ultimately decides where taxpayer money goes. It often appropriates funds to programs that the relevant committees haven’t authorized. This is due in part to the fact that the 20 standing committees in the House form a tangled jurisdictional web, which complicates oversight and produces power struggles between chairmen. The problem is most acute when it comes to health care, over which seven committees have overlapping jurisdiction, each with its own parochial interests. No wonder health care continues to confuse legislators into inaction.

We need to end the jurisdictional “game of thrones” by simplifying the committee structure. I propose reducing the total number of committees to better correspond with the number of major executive-branch departments and agencies. Critically, health care could be consolidated into a single House Health Committee, which would be positioned to take a more holistic view of our health-care system. At the same time, in order to jump-start our stalled budgetary and appropriations procedures, the Appropriations Committee should be dissolved and its duties reassigned among the standing committees. These committees would both authorize the activities of the executive-branch agencies they oversee and appropriate the taxpayer money necessary to carry out these activities.

Appropriators and powerful chairmen hate these ideas because they fear losing power. But these proposals would actually make each committee more powerful and the work of each member more meaningful. Streamlining the committee process would also allow Congress to concentrate staff resources, better equipping committees to face off against the executive-branch bureaucrats they are charged with overseeing.

For these three reforms to really have teeth, each would likely entail follow-on reforms. I personally believe that more dramatic reforms, such as term limits or prohibiting fund-raising while Congress is in session, are needed. I also don’t pretend to have an answer for the Senate, where the fundamental problem seems to be that every member wants to be president.

Many of my more experienced colleagues will find these recommendations naive or presumptuous. But the good news is that I sense a genuine desire for reform among newer members on both sides of the aisle. (I’m one of the 36 members who signed on to the comprehensive Break the Gridlock proposal put forward by the Problem Solvers Caucus.) And each period of major congressional reform in the past was also preceded by a period of profound dissatisfaction with Congress. We’ve definitely reached that point.

The worst thing we can do is to ignore the American people and do nothing to regain their trust. Until we fix the processes and the structures of power within Congress, we should expect more of the same—polarization, vitriol, and demagoguery. Every two years, candidates will inveigh against the status quo in the swamp, and then promptly get swallowed by it. A great country such as ours deserves a functional legislature—and only structural reforms can deliver it.