When Democratic House members from the 116th Congress take their seats next month, they are going to enjoy something their fellow party members have not enjoyed in a long time: power.
Sen. William Marcy (D-N.Y.) described the thrill of life in the majority when he coined his famous phrase, “To the victor belong the spoils.” The blunt maxim described a system of patronage that echoes with many Americans’ deep distaste for congressional ethics and its reputation as an out of touch institution today. But Democrats do not have to use their newfound spoils to carry on business as usual. Instead, they can leverage majority power to bring more transparency and accountability to the first branch and try to redeem it in the eyes of the voters who sent them there.
They need to act fast. Before the House casts its first vote on any legislation, Democrats will need to craft a rules package with instructions for the House as to how it conducts its daily business, where it places its priorities and how legislation comes to the floor.
At the moment, the Speaker’s race, jockeying for committee assignments, and hiring staff have all consumed the attention spans of representatives-elect. New members may not yet realize that the rules package vote will be one of the most important in their new career. It will shape the legislative agenda over the next two years and give them the opportunity to make immediate and transformative change in the way Congress operates.
While members vote to approve this on Jan. 3, Speaker-Designate Pelosi and the new chairman of the Rules Committee, Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), will be crafting this proposal over the next few weeks. It is essential to consider four issues.
First, the package should have a statement about the need to recognize the staggering amount of time and attention members spend dialing for dollars. Every moment spent begging donors for money detracts from the time members have to meet with constituents. It erodes from their time spent doing their job on their assigned committee. And it destroys the bond of trust the American people should have in Congress given the current pay-to-play system. It will certainly help when the Democratic leadership makes the first legislative bill in order to increase small donor empowerment, improve transparency, and prioritize ethics reform.
Second, new rules could significantly increase the transparency and accountability for members and open up the legislative process. Currently, legislation is often jammed into one bill designed solely by a half dozen people in leadership and not the 435 members. The members usually do not have the ability to read it, let alone change the proposal. Passing more "open rules" and returning to "regular order" would restore fairness within the Caucus and increase the chances of bipartisan cooperation in the body.
Third, the rules package should include language to increase the crucial role of committee work and reward legislation that gains the overall support of their membership. Richard Fenno, an eminent professor of political science, once said that the work of Congress is the work of its committees. Exercising diligent oversight, conducting inclusive hearings, and allowing amendments from both sides of the aisle, will make Congress more effective and judicious.
Finally, creating a Select Committee on Congress and appointing to it serious and substantive members who have sponsored reform legislation and deeply respect the institution of Congress is critical. They would hold public hearings and gather input from the American people and legal scholars over several months and issue a series of institutional reforms. This could actually lead to long-term recommendations to strengthen the role of the legislative branch and fulfill its constitutional position.
Gallup polls shows that Americans have the least confidence in Congress compared to any other institution. Now, many of our citizens from both parties just do not believe that it can reflect the common good. Congress can begin to change these beliefs, but only if they act boldly and creatively. The new class of freshman members should be leading the charge.
Tim Roemer, a former Member of Congress (D-Ind.) and former US Ambassador to India, is a strategic advisor to Issue One.