These are hard times for Congress. Its approval ratings have seen a bump from their historic lows of a few months ago, but it’s a small one. Our representative democracy’s keystone political institution is widely derided as ineffective, unproductive, irrelevant, and sadly out of touch.
It is no coincidence that this comes while Congress has developed a taste for so-called “unorthodox lawmaking,” wandering far outside its traditional procedures. That’s why I would argue that as grim as things seem now, there is a fix for what ails Congress.
Broadly speaking, it involves congressional process. Let me quote John Dingell, the canny U.S. House member from Michigan who recently announced his retirement. “I’ll let you write the substance,” he once told a House Judiciary subcommittee, “...you let me write the procedure, and I’ll screw you every time.” In legislative bodies, whoever controls the process controls the result. If it wants to restore itself, Congress must make its processes exemplary and fair.
Members should begin by opening the floor to more amendments. At the moment amendments are tightly limited, if not banned outright, in an effort by the leadership to control the outcome. This restricts debate, impedes the free flow of ideas, and strengthens leaders while disempowering ordinary members.
The leadership also needs to give up its concentrated power and hand more authority to congressional committees. However worthy congressional leaders may be, they cannot do the job that the committee system was designed for: holding hearings, inquiring deeply into issues, eliciting facts, laying out options, arguing over amendments, finding the common ground needed to advance legislation.
The simple truth is that members of Congress are there primarily to legislate — not to raise money or score political points on television. Yet Congress seems to devote less and less time to crafting and passing legislation; it is losing the habit and the skills, and its work product suffers. It needs to work harder at the job Americans expect.
To make this possible, the Senate should do more of its business by simple majority vote of the senators present and voting. I know that many senators like the ability to filibuster, and do not want to abandon the rule that requires 60 votes to close debate. But here’s the thing: the super-majority rule, as it has been applied recently, has become a formula for impotence and disorder. Every democratic institution in this country operates by majority rule except the Senate, where a small minority can completely gum up the works.
It’s important for the majority to assure fair procedures that take minority views fully into account, but at the end of the day Congress needs to work, not be hamstrung by loyalty to a Senate rule that has outlived its purpose.
Which is not to say that tradition has no place on Capitol Hill. Many of the procedures it developed over long years of practice were designed to improve its functioning — especially in designing and enacting the federal budget. That process is completely broken now. Congress needs to focus its attention on returning to the traditional budget process of considering separate appropriations bills, as opposed to lumping the entire budget into a single bill.
Other key processes also need mending. The confirmation of presidential appointees is absurdly slow, seriously jeopardizing a president’s ability to govern. Some 50 ambassadorial nominees await votes in the Senate, some of them having cooled their heels for months, and foreign governments are noticing and taking offense. The congressional ethics committees are dormant. Travel privileges are routinely abused — the government should pay for legitimate congressional travel and no trips should be paid for by special interest groups. The crucially important oversight process has become a political sideshow. Campaign expenditures should be limited and donors should be disclosed.
The point of all this is that Congress is listing, but it can right itself. It may not be able to tackle all of these proposed fixes at once, but each is within its power. Members should quit throwing up their hands and protesting that they can’t do anything about their own institution’s problems. It’s their job to put Congress back in working order and they have the power to do it.
Lee Hamilton is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.