Do you want to drain the swamp? Then start investing in Congress

Do you want to drain the swamp? Then start investing in Congress
© Greg Nash

Congress is a punchline. It has earned it over the years. No one should be surprised that the legislative branch consistently gets a failing grade from the American people. The view that Congress fails to serve the public is now prevailing wisdom. But it does not have to be. The majority of voters, including Republicans, Democrats and independents, are hungry to fix our broken system. The good news for them is that the 116th Congress now has a historic opportunity to enact meaningful bipartisan change.

You heard that right. Congress, in this hyperpartisan and polarized national climate, could take substantive steps to become a vibrant and effective 21st century branch of government. How? Congress should invest more in itself, including attracting and retaining talented staff, allocating greater resources to member offices and committees, and prioritizing subject matter expertise in the halls on Capitol Hill.

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Give Congress more money? Your skepticism is warranted, but let us examine why Congress has fallen so far in pursuit of its constitutional role as a coequal branch of government. Nothing empowers the Washington swamp more than high turnover, low pay, and a dysfunctional legislative branch. Over the past few decades, Congress has hamstrung its own authority by choosing to forgo developing and retaining staff expertise and capacity in exchange for nickel and dime budget cuts.

There is a thriving cottage industry that is reliant upon the revolving door between Capitol Hill and K Street. The best and brightest staff often trade two years making a pittance for higher pay and better hours at one of dozens of lobbying firms that represent interests with issues before Congress. Veteran lobbyists can at times run circles around legislative staff with less than a decade of experience. Old Washington hands are more familiar with the ins and outs of Congress, history of the chamber, and policy than a fresh from graduate school legislative assistant.

The sad fact is that revolving door lobbyists and political party leaders hold almost all the cards, while a rank and file individual member of Congress has little say in the process. Making matters even worse, Congress is increasingly abdicating its role as the first branch of government, ceding more and more power to the executive branch.

Further degrading the body are the most powerful committees in Congress, where some of the most important legislating should be happening, headed by those “team players” whose measure is their loyalty to party leadership. “One becomes a team player not by demonstrating policy expertise or legislative skill, but by consistently voting with the leadership,” wrote Representative Mike GallagherMichael (Mike) John GallagherBipartisan lawmakers unveil bill to tighten some campaign rules Do you want to drain the swamp? Then start investing in Congress GOP lawmaker calls for committees to elect their own chairmen MORE, a Republican freshman from Wisconsin, noting that another important factor for advancement on Capitol Hill is fundraising prowess, which effectively amounts to a “committee tax” on elected members.

The system is broken and Congress cannot do its job. To tackle it problems head on, to treat the deep sickness of the body, the leaders in the 116th Congress should create a Joint Select Committee on the Capacity of Congress to bring both legislative chambers into the 21st century. The committee must of course be bipartisan, preferably with leaders from both chambers. The committee should hold public hearings as well as private listening sessions with member offices and produce common sense proposals to ensure an updated, responsive, and representative institution. Lawmakers from both parties are already getting the ball rolling and offering some serious reform proposals.

One end goal of the committee would be to identify and allocate the resources needed to properly handle the work required of their personal offices and committees, and a particular focus must be on recruiting and retaining the staff they need. To put the work of Congress in context, the body raises and allocates money for a $3.7 trillion budget, or nearly a fifth of our total economy, and spends just 0.05 percent on staff for itself.

For those tempted to point out the job of a member of Congress is a reward in its own right, recall that the last two speakers of the House voluntarily resigned, giving up the gavel on one of the most powerful positions in our government. These resignations were canaries in the coal mine as clarion calls for change in the functioning of the legislative branch, as it can neither address the majority of bills before it, nor directly respond to members who have more nuanced needs in their districts.

The new committee should also address the roles of leadership on standing committees, and their jurisdiction when crafting legislation and considering bills each Congress. Rank and file members from the majority and minority deserve the time to review and consider all the legislation Congress crafts, rather than simply being called on to vote with their party on omnibus packages often running thousands of pages long.

Like any apparatus, we cannot expect Congress to function without maintenance. We have allowed one of our most cherished institutions to fall into disrepair. If Americans want their elected representatives to be more responsive to them, and less beholden the swamp of Washington special interests, they must implore the 116th Congress to take the steps necessary to fix the legislative branch and how it conducts business.

Meredith McGehee is the executive director of Issue One. She worked on Capitol Hill and advocated for democracy reforms for more than 30 years. She also serves as a strategic adviser with the Campaign Legal Center.