Congress and New Year's Resolutions
© Greg Nash

Mark Twain once wrote on a New Year’s Day that it is the day to make your well-intentioned resolutions; “Next week you can begin paving hell with them as usual.” I thought about that when I considered the cross-roads at which Congress finds itself as we enter this third decade of the 21st Century.

Obviously, the most immediate and pressing issue facing Congress is the Senate impeachment trial of President Donald J. Trump, that is, if House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiCNN's Axelrod says impeachment didn't come up until 80 minutes into focus group On The Money — Presented by Wells Fargo — Social Security emerges as flash point in Biden-Sanders fight | Dems urge Supreme Court to save consumer agency | Trump to sign USMCA next week Veronica Escobar to give Spanish-language response to Trump State of the Union address MORE (D-Calif.) becomes convinced that a fair Senate trial will ensue and sends the House-passed articles over.

Alexander Hamilton, in Federalist 65, warned us that in an impeachment, “the greatest danger” is that “the decision will be regulated more by the comparative strength of parties than by the real demonstration of innocence or guilt.”

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That’s why the decision of innocence or guilt was left to the Senate which Hamilton said the framers considered “a tribunal sufficiently dignified, or sufficiently independent….to preserve, unawed and influenced, the necessary impartiality between an individual accused and the representatives of the people, his accusers.”

That expectation is reflected in the oath adopted for the first Senate impeachment trial in 1798, and carried forward to this day. It commits senators, sitting at trial, to “do impartial justice.” Senate Democrats complain that Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellCNN's Axelrod says impeachment didn't come up until 80 minutes into focus group Democrats feel political momentum swinging to them on impeachment Impeachment throws curveball in Iowa to sidelined senators MORE (R-Ky.), in coordinating with the White House on impeachment, is in violation of that oath. Logic, however, tells us you cannot be in violation of an oath you have not yet taken, any more than you can be in violation of a law not yet enacted. An oath not yet sworn is not binding on pre-trial statements or actions. 

Realistically, one must recognize that the Senate has evolved over the last two and one-third centuries into a body almost as partisan as the House and therefore less predisposed to “do impartial justice” before a trial.  Senators today cannot pretend to shed their partisan affiliations and political beliefs and come to an impeachment trial as blank slates. That is not to absolve them of the duty, once sitting as jurors, to carefully examine the evidence and arrive at as just and independent a decision as possible. It simply recognizes that all senators bring certain baggage to the floor with them that cannot be checked at the door.

All this brings us back to the new year and new decade, neither of which can be predicted with 20-20 foresight. Keep in mind that the bookends to this first year are an impeachment trial and a presidential election, both of which will be infused with vitriol and vinegar. What will all this portend for the rest of the decade?

The 20th century’s decade of the 20s was called “the roaring 20s” for the sense of relief and release after World War I’s terrible devastation. The defiance of prohibition and other societal strictures were exemplified by bathtub gin, bootleggers, speakeasies, flappers and the Charleston.  It culminated in the economic crash of ’29 and the ensuing Great Depression that was only broken by America’s entry into World War II.

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Turning to Congress today, I wonder if members of both houses are crafting new year’s resolutions to make this new decade of the twenties something better that just “roaring” –a term that today brings more to mind the shouting across the aisle in Congress and across the cultural abyss in the country. If so, how much are members willing to invest in bridging those divides? 

One ray of hope is a little known House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress which was recently given a one-year extension through 2020 to complete its findings and recommendations on how to make Congress more capable, understandable and responsive. 

The select committee was created out of a broad bipartisan consensus that the institution of Congress today has lost its way, that levels of public support and confidence are at all-time lows, and that something must be done soon to reverse these discouraging trends if our representative democracy is to be salvaged and revitalized. The select committee has already reported some 45 proposed changes for the House and more will be forthcoming given its new lease on life.

I do not pretend to have the answers, notwithstanding nearly three decades working in the House and two additional decades studying and writing about Congress. I just know it’s a conversation that both those inside and outside the institution need to have to get back to what I call in my recent book, “big picture governing” --to bring the people back into the picture.

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.