Congress must reclaim its Article I powers in order to earn back public trust
Polling suggests that Congress is less popular than head lice and colonoscopies. For many Americans, Congress is viewed through the lens of numbing gridlock, government shutdowns, and snarky Twitter battles.
Sadly, Congress — by choice or by default — has often ceded much of its constitutional authorities to the executive and judicial branches or simply fallen into the category of “the broken branch” of government. As the COVID-19 public health crisis and economic fallout continue to affect Americans nationwide, negotiations on help for individuals and small businesses stalled between the executive and legislative branches. At the same time, millions of dollars were pumped into the battle to fill the Supreme Court vacancy because, in part, the courts today exert an outsized influence over national policy.
This isn’t what our Founding Fathers intended or what most Americans want. The Framers established three co-equal branches of government and created a system of checks and balances for oversight and accountability. However, Congress is punching below its weight.
Going back to our founding days, the Constitution designated Congress in Article I as the first among these co-equal branches. But over the last 60 years, Congress’ standing has eroded. While Congress’ budget and staff size have remained basically the same for more than 30 years, the executive branch has proliferated in size and special interest groups on K Street have multiplied.
Lacking the sufficient staff and resources it needs to fulfill its constitutional obligations, Congress too often relies on lobbyists, executive branch officials, and appointees for analysis and information. That doesn’t serve the best interests of the American people. Consistently low approval ratings speak to a fundamental distrust and frustration with Washington, and ultimately make it difficult for members of Congress to defend investing in ‘the People’s House’.
This can change. We are optimistic that Congress has entered a reform era. If Congress is to do the job the Founding Fathers intended, it must reclaim the Article I powers it has relinquished.
This past election shows that voters don’t want the status quo. They certainly don’t want endless and fruitless bickering in Congress. Whether you are a liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican you want a Congress that can work.
There is good news; over the past 20 months a bipartisan group of 12 lawmakers has worked quietly behind the scenes to make Congress more effective, efficient, and transparent for the American people. The Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress (“Modernization Committee”), was tasked with making recommendations that modernize, improve, and reform U.S. House operations. In dozens of hearings and listening sessions, the committee heard concerns about Congress’ failure to uphold its Article I responsibilities.
In response, the Modernization Committee passed nearly 100 recommendations for reform — all focused on giving Congress back its ability to effectively perform its policymaking, oversight, and representational responsibilities. Among the highlights are recommendations to improve the workings of congressional committees, boost bipartisanship and civility, reclaim Congress’ spending authority, and increase staff retention and diversity.
Nowhere is the need for effective lawmaking more apparent than the budget and appropriations process. Article I gives Congress alone the “power of the purse.” This is arguably one of the body’s most essential constitutional responsibilities. Yet Congress continually fails in its duty to fund the government, epitomized by last year’s government shutdown — the longest in history. Rather than pass the 12 individual appropriations bills that the entire federal government relies on, Congress often neglects its role, opting for massive omnibus spending bills with little input from individual members or local communities.
The Modernization Committee took this head on. First, it adopted recommendations to reform the budget and appropriations process — including biennial budgeting and increased coordination between the executive and legislative branches. The Modernization Committee also proposed a new Community Focused Grant Program to give power back to local communities and ensure taxpayer dollars are spent more efficiently and transparently on local priorities. It includes specific guardrails against abuse, and by committing to local investments, could help bring Democrats and Republicans together to pass funding bills on time with improved oversight. This could help end the calamity of government shutdowns and ensure local communities have more say in how Congress spends your money — not lobbyists and special interests.
The Modernization Committee also considered how to better retain staff, assist congressional district offices, and make sure members are spending their time as effectively as possible solving problems for their constituents.
Ultimately, in order to earn back public trust, Congress needs to demonstrate its commitment to fulfilling the obligations the Founding Fathers set forth in Article I of the Constitution as a co-equal branch of government standing up for American citizens.
Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in “Democracy in America” that “[Citizens’] chief business…is to remain their own masters.” Americans must listen to his advice once again.
Derek Kilmer is the U.S. Representative for Washington’s 6th District and is Chair of the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress. Tim Roemer served as an Ambassador to India from 2009-2011 and represented Indiana’s 3rd District in Congress from 1990-2002.
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