The Senate has long styled itself as the “world’s greatest deliberative body,” and the House of Representatives as “the People’s House”. No longer.
For numerous economic, technological, political, and cultural reasons, the American people are much divided. Hyper-partisanship and dysfunction in the Congress exacerbate those divisions.
It was not always so. As late as 2001, in the aftermath of 9/11, 84 percent of the public approved of the job Congress was doing. In early April, a Gallup poll found that number to be only 20 percent.
Congress complains about its inability to act but it has only itself to blame. It is not helpless. The tools to restore its effectiveness already exist. It should use them to return to the “regular order”. In short, it should “do its job” as the Constitution and the rules of the House and Senate anticipated.
The Congress used to work a five-day week. Members and sometimes their families socialized and got to know each other. These inter-actions helped create the conditions for compromise. Now, senators and representatives spend so little time in Washington that some actually live in their offices for the few days they are around. The result is members of different parties now tend to see each other and their ideas in caricature.
The committee system used to be the heart of the legislative process. Committees were the vehicles for finding common ground, or at least narrowing the controversies, before a bill moved to the full House or Senate. Committee reports provided detailed section-by-section analyses of the bills and usually included an analysis of changes to existing law. Now campaigning, with its money chase, is continuous and power has moved from individual members and committees to the leadership, and from the Congress to the president through questionable executive orders. The result is the Congress gets less and less done, and the American people are justifiably frustrated.
If the Congressional leadership is unwilling to restore the regular order that served it well historically, is there another way to do so? The Constitution may hold part of the answer. It states that a quorum for the Senate or the House must be present to do business. Both bodies get around it by assuming a quorum is present. When the Senate is in session, the chamber usually resembles a ghost town, except when senators have to be present for a vote. The House is no better.
There are, however, mechanisms to require an actual quorum. Under the Constitution and Senate rules, a single member can force 51 senators to come to the Senate chamber in order to continue business. The House has a higher requirement, but one that a small, determined minority could meet.
If members of Congress had to spend more time with their colleagues, the amount of real engagement might increase – and that could lead to more action on the people’s priorities. At least one reason that the number of filibusters exploded in recent years is that motions to shut off debate became the “easy” way to avoid dealing with the opposition. Forcing members to spend more time in the Senate chamber, not extending the “nuclear option” to legislation to further gut the filibuster, could change that calculus.
In the House, the Republicans have gone nuclear in their own way to avoid dealing with their Democratic colleagues. This started with the so-called “Hastert Rule,” under which bills were not considered unless they had majority Republican support. Now that has morphed into a requirement that bills not be considered unless they can be passed with solely Republican votes. The result is a process that ignores Democrats and rewards the most extreme Republican members. Requiring our representatives to spend more time on the House floor could raise the costs of trying to avoid dealing with the views of the entire House, and that might mean more bipartisan legislation.
While these proposals would encounter resistance, it’s worth remembering a determined minority, just a single member in the Senate, could use the Constitution to force real change. As Winston Churchill once said, “Sometimes doing your best is not good enough. Sometimes you must do what is required.” Surely it’s not too much to ask the Congress to do what other Americans do -- their job.
William H. Mattea spent 25 years working for Democratic senators in Washington, DC. Peter Kinzler spent 25 years working for House and Senate Democrats, primarily on committee staffs.
The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.