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Congress must listen to John McCain


Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) proved yet again this week his love for our country, his commitment to our democracy, and his willingness to speak truth to power. With the leadership from both parties standing with him in the Senate Chamber, he admonished them that they have let the Senate disintegrate from the world’s greatest deliberative body to one that, because of a partisan and tribal mindset, no longer produces for the American people. The same can be said for the House of Representatives, in which the two of us served a combined 50 years. We now lead on a pro bono basis FMC, a bipartisan group of over 600 former Members of Congress working together to strengthen representative democracy and civic education. McCain has issued a call-to-action, and FMC echoes his concern for the state of our representative democracy. 

Our congressional experience is very different from that of today’s members. This is not their fault; they are as dedicated to the common good and to their political views as we were when serving in the House. What has changed substantially is not the type of person who is elected to Congress, but rather the process and the limitations the institution now imposes on our representatives. In the myriad changes made to Congress, one stands out: abandoning regular order and the committee system as an integral mechanism to craft legislation.

{mosads}The average rank-and-file member, which means the vast majority of senators and representatives, no longer has any true input when it comes to major bills. Committee hearings where both sides of the aisle can invite and interview experts now mostly happen to produce hyper-partisan soundbites to satisfy the 24-hr cable news cycle.

Our experience was different, professionally much more satisfying, and produced better results. Via regular order members could introduce legislation, which then would be referred to committees with jurisdiction. Then, the members of Congress serving on those appropriate committees—who had a certain degree of expertise on the subject matter and were supported by professional staff that dealt with corresponding issues on a daily basis—would examine the strengths and weaknesses of proposed legislation. The process allowed for Democrats and Republicans, in a vigorous clash of ideas, to debate the merits of each piece of the bill, examine expert witnesses, and offer amendments during markup.

In addition to having a voice in the drafting process, members were given time to educate themselves on the issue, hear from their constituents, and actually read and ponder the legislation before having to vote on it.

If a bill was passed in the House, then more or less the same process was repeated in the Senate, and differing versions were worked out in a conference between the House and Senate before the president was given the opportunity to veto or sign the bill. Unfortunately that process is foreign to current members: The majority of them have never seen Congress adhere to regular order.

This is a long and sometime arduous process, but it was one that allowed us—and thereby, the constituents we represented—to truly have a voice and the opportunity to have an impact. Making compromises during this process produced fairer and better laws. However, regular order only works if there is a willingness to hear the other party. And this is the crux of McCain’s message to Congress: let’s be rivals with respect for each other; let’s have a fierce clash of ideas and make the committee room our battlefield; let’s give America’s voters credit for sending us representatives and senators who are passionate about their political points of view and can defend them in an intellectual tug-of-war. We couldn’t agree more.

John McCain, barely a week after surgery and receiving a brain cancer diagnosis, stood tall in the Senate chamber and challenged the first branch created by the Constitution to do what it is supposed to do: through an imperfect process full of compromise, deliver for the American people workable solutions. FMC proudly joins him in this call-to-action and implores our colleagues in Congress to embrace imperfection as well.

Stearns served in the House from 1989 – 2013 and is FMC president. Frost served in the House from 1979 – 2005 and is FMC vice president.

The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

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