Getting back to governing
© Stefani Reynolds

Last September, one of us (Spulak) co-authored an op-ed with George Crawford, another former Democratic staff director of the House Rules Committee, suggesting a simple, one-step way “to fix” Congress: “Free the House Rules Committee” (Politico, Sept. 19, 2018). By loosening the ties between the majority leadership and the committee, they argued, the House could return to the days when Congress worked -- “when debate mattered and compromise existed.”

In October, the other author of this piece (Wolfensberger), published a book that proposed a new, yet old, method of putting Congress back on track: embrace a culture of big-picture governing in which the House would first debate the overall nature of a major problem, and possible solutions to it, before sending the issue to the appropriate committee with instructions to work out the details (“Changing Cultures in Congress: From Fair Play to Power Plays”).

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As former staff directors of the Rules Committee from opposing parties, we think these two approaches, when combined, present a clear path for the House to both re-engage individual members and the American public in the important business of governing in the national interest. And, given the flip in party control of the House in last Tuesday’s midterm elections, there could be no better time or opportunity to try a new approach to governing.

The top-down, micro-managing of the legislative process by the majority party leadership, regardless of which party is in control, has discouraged members from developing expertise and ideas to address major problems. Notwithstanding pledges by minority party leaders to return the House to the “regular order” if they regain the majority, those pledges are soon forgotten as their legislative agenda takes priority under a leadership-driven irregular process. It’s not that leaders of either party have been purposely deceptive, but that they realize how little time two years is to fulfill their policy promises. As more than one majority leadership figure has put it in the past: “The American people don’t care how we do things; they just want results.” And yet, when one considers how integral the procedures of our democracy are to member engagement and public trust, we recognize how foolish it is to dismiss procedural fairness and genuine deliberation out of hand.

Woodrow Wilson, in his 1885 treatise, “Congressional Government,” wrote that Congress gets so caught-up in the weeds of legislation that it loses sight of what should be its major role --sharing in the business of governing. Wilson advocated for Congress superintending the activities of the executive branch through diligent oversight and then informing the public of its findings and prescriptions for change. In his words, “The informing function of Congress should be preferred even to its legislative function,” because such talk, “when earnestly and purposefully conducted, clears the public mind and shapes the demands of public opinion.” Wilson did not suggest Congress abandon its legislative duties in favor of oversight debates, but that “legislative purposes might be most fortunately clarified and simplified” to “understanding, discussing, and directing administration.”

Ironically, the early U.S. Congresses took this approach of governing by discussion. They first held general debates in a committee of the whole House on the need for legislation before sending the issue to an appropriate select committee with guidance for fleshing-out the legislative details. In 1994, the House came close to replicating this model by holding a series of three “Oxford-style debates” on major policy issues. In that instance the debates were so removed from the legislative process they did not catch-on. However, that defect could easily be remedied if the discussions were tied to a resolution and format shaped by the Rules Committee, subject to a full debate and amendment process, at the conclusion of which the matter would be sent to a standing committee with instructions to report back by a date certain.

As the Spulak-Crawford piece points out, for most of its first 100 years of existence as a standing committee (1880-1980), the Rules Committee was left by the leadership to exercise its independent judgment in determining the debate time and amendment process for considering major legislation. In addition to restoring such authority to the committee, we think the committee can play a creative role in shaping the big-picture governing debates we argue for here.

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If one thing comes across loud and clear from the statements of members who voluntarily retire, it is their frustration over not being allowed to play a meaningful role in the policy process. By returning to the kind of big-picture governing debates conducted by early Congresses and linking those to committee oversight and legislative work, members should be able to play that larger role and, in the process do a better job of informing the people of what their government is up to and what Congress is doing about it.

Don Wolfensberger, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center and Bipartisan Policy Center, is author of “Changing Cultures in Congress: From Fair Play to Power Plays,” and Republican staff director of the House Rules Committee from 1991-1997. Tom Spulak, a partner in the government advocacy and public policy group at the law firm of King and Spaulding, was the Democratic staff director of the House Rules Committee from 1983 to 1991.