Anyone who has had the chance to tour the United States Capitol will tell you that one of the highlights is Statuary Hall, one of the House of Representatives’ earliest meeting halls.
In this small room, the House had some of its most consequential debates about the kind of country America should be. John Quincy Adams and Abraham Lincoln had desks here. Above those desks, since 1819, the room has held a statue of Clio, the Greek muse of History riding a chariot and holding a book so she can record the events unfolding around her.
We wonder what she would record today, in an era where bickering bests bipartisanship, and a substantial number of Americans rate their Congress as less popular than head lice, colonoscopies and Nickelback.
The House doesn’t have to be this way. And we know in this young century as technology changes our economy, culture and even our identity as a nation, Americans can’t afford for its Congress to continue down this path.
We’re doing something about it. Over the summer and through the fall, as co-chairs of the bipartisan Congressional Reformers Caucus, we organized more than 130 meetings with more than 60 members of Congress from across the country and political spectrum. Through those conversations, we developed a series of bipartisan reform ideas that will help Congress work better. In the coming months, we will raise them with members of the House Rules Committee and leaders of both parties.
Taken together, these reforms will help more good ideas see the light of day. They will empower individual representatives and increase debate so Americans have a more direct say in what gets done in Washington, D.C.
The proposals include wonky rule fixes that will return the House to “regular order” —functioning the way School House Rock describes it — and practical fixes, like having the text of a bill available with plenty of time for members to read it.
These reforms would also remove some of the polarization by creating shared goals between the parties and providing an incentive for proposals with broad, bipartisan support to actually receive a vote.
When the House of Representatives works as designed, it is a series of committees staffed by members who have life experiences that qualify them as experts on the issues the committee considers. Those committees have debates and hearings on the merits of legislation, not just made-for-prime-time inquisitions.
And yet, too often, legislation flies through committees and comes to the House floor without meaningful input from committee members. Bypassing committees to bring a bill to the floor or preventing any amendments to a proposal should be the exception, not the rule.
We also recognize that some of the problems in the House will require more study. In the 1940s and again in the 1970s, Congress set up committees to look specifically at some of the issues that contribute to dysfunction and division. We believe the time is ripe for a similar endeavor.
The next select committee should look at how the House’s leaders allocate committee assignments, committee jurisdictions, the role of fundraising in the legislative process, the schedule of hearings and votes, and many other items.
There’s a lot at stake in fixing the way things get done in the House. We want the House to be a place where consensus is sought and reached. Most of all, we want to turn the page in Clio’s book to a new era where Americans have faith in their government and confidence that the process designed to help our diverse country settle its most pressing challenges is actually working.
There’s no better time to get started. We’re encouraged that other groups like the Problem Solvers Caucus and senior House leaders are banging the drum for reform.
We are all working for our respective parties to win control of the House. But in reality, nobody knows how it’s going to turn out. So, let’s use this moment to create a new set of rules that gives Americans the faith that their Congress is working as hard as the people counting on it to function.
Kilmer and Buck co-chair the bipartisan Congressional Reformers Caucus in the United States House of Representatives.