Is Congress retrievable?
© Greg Nash

After giving a talk recently on “An Evolving Congress Over a Half Century,” I was asked by an audience member if there was one procedural change I would make to reverse the decline in Congress’s legislative capacity and productivity? 

I responded that I had participated in and observed enough reform efforts since the 1960s to be skeptical about any proposed procedural fixes. There is no silver bullet or magic elixir to pull Congress from its current state of dysfunction. The rules are already on the books in both houses and their committees to enable the return to a more deliberative and results-driven process.  What we lack at this point is the concerted will of members to confront and resolve the problems facing the nation. 

I reminded the audience that we have been through much worse times in our history as a nation, including civil and world wars, great economic crashes and depressions, and devastating urban riots. History has proven that our Constitution is a resilient document if the people and their representatives have the will and stamina to right things.

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But the bowels of Congress are strewn with the bones of past failed reform efforts; and the dome of the Capitol is filled with the hot air from previously over-hyped institutional improvements.  Meantime, members continue to slog back and forth between their personal offices or committee rooms and the House floor in Pavlovian response to the bells summoning them to vote and to be rewarded by a green or red light when they insert their voting cards in a box on the aisle and press “yea” or “nay.”

When Rep. John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerFormer Speaker Boehner's official portrait unveiled Key Republicans say Biden can break Washington gridlock From learning on his feet to policy director MORE (R-Ohio) became Speaker in 2011 he vowed to make members feel like more than mere “voting machines.” He promised a return to the “regular order” --as both his predecessors and successors as Speaker have all done --to no avail. Not too many members are still around who remember what the old regular order was. The new regular order to junior members is a party- and reelection-driven process whereby members entrust to their elected leaders not only the power to set policy agendas and the processes by which bills will be considered, but often dictate the legislative details. Is it any wonder that members are less inclined to take their committee work seriously when they are second-guessed at every turn by leaders who claim to know what is best for the party’s electoral success?

It is not surprising that party leaders yield from time to time to those clamoring for a more significant role in policy making. These demands often lead to establishing reform committees to determine the nature of member discontent and to propose changes in institutional structures and procedures to give members a greater stake in determining policy outcomes. While one can count on one hand the number of these reform efforts that have succeeded over the last half century, one runs out of digits in quantifying the number of failures. As the old proverb goes, “There is many a slip ‘twixt cup and lip.”

In the last Congress, a well-intentioned and hard-working joint select committee on budget reform was unable to muster the super-majority votes required to report even modest changes. In this Congress, a House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress is quietly adopting some incremental changes in transparency and on other matters that must still be embraced by standing committees of jurisdiction. The select committee is scheduled to terminate in December, though some are already suggesting it be given a longer lease --say, to the end of this Congress.

Some have even suggested the select committee be made permanent as an ongoing reform mechanism. That was previously attempted with a Joint Committee on Congressional Operations in the 1970s, spun-off from the 1965 Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress that culminated in the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970. The follow-on joint committee did produce a contracted report on “Congress and Mass Communications” that eventually led to the televising of House floor proceedings beginning in 1979. But the Senate bowed out of the joint committee shortly thereafter and it did not survive for long as a House select committee.

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The House Rules Committee resisted calls by Republicans in the 1970s to establish one subcommittee on original jurisdiction. Instead, the majority compromised by giving each member an associate staffer. Not long thereafter, however, the committee established two subcommittees while still allowing members to keep their associate staff (until recently).

The bottom line is that the only hope is for the public’s disgust, distrust and outrage to motivate members, out of fear of defeat, to change the institution’s culture to make it work better. No number of joint, special or select committees can guarantee that result. The changes that last will be best processed through the standing committees of jurisdiction, operating under the regular order, with strong, bipartisan leadership and member backing.

Don Wolfensberger is a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center and Bipartisan Policy Center, former staff director of the House Rules Committee, and author of  “Changing Cultures in Congress: From Fair Play to Power Plays.”  The views expressed are solely his own.