Make Congress interesting again

Make Congress interesting again
© Stefani Reynolds

In a nation consumed with political strife, if there is one issue Americans seem to agree on, it is their shared disdain for Congress. Yet lawmakers still seem confused about how to respond to this nationwide crisis of confidence. It should not be difficult. There is a simple solution.

Let us first clarify the problem. A recent Gallup Poll demonstrates that from 1974 to 2009, Americans gave Congress a mediocre 37 percent approval rating, but over the last decade, the approval rating has dropped to 17 percent with a disapproval rating of 75 percent. Reformers have tried for decades to address the causes of legislative dysfunction and gridlock that fuel this public contempt for Congress. Unfortunately, finding partisan agreement to tackle the causes has proven futile.

Rather than trying to combat legislative dysfunction, Congress should tackle the problems that are repairable, like rebuilding public trust. Lawmakers should do this by making Congress more interesting and accessible. Congress conducts its business primarily in committee hearings and floor proceedings developed 200 years ago.

ADVERTISEMENT

These public forums fail miserably to interest 21st century citizens. Yet neither committee hearings nor floor proceedings have changed much over history. Back in 1789, Congress did not need to make its work interesting or understandable to a national audience. There was no national audience watching on television or listening on the radio. But today there is, and Congress has failed to adapt its work to the times.

Take a typical House hearing. It is a nightmare for viewers. It takes several hours and consists of dozens of committee members and a few expert witnesses reading opening statements. The members then read scripted questions to engage in dialogue with the witnesses. The questions are asked in order of member seniority rather than by topic, so the dialogue jumps around from topic to topic with no logical or coherent flow.

Floor proceeding are worse. The debate on the House or Senate floor often consists of one member giving a speech to broadcast cameras and a largely empty chamber about a topic of his or her choosing. The only other members listening are often the presiding officer and the member waiting to give the next speech. Discussion about amendments and votes are so arcane that only legislative insiders can understand them.

Not surprisingly, lawmakers spend minimal time listening to floor remarks or questions of their colleagues in committee. They know that both forums have become political theater where members compete for media coverage and engage in partisan messaging, rather than a place where meaningful policy discussions occur. Indeed, high school and college teachers understand that such tedious and often incoherent proceedings do not make Congress any more interesting or accessible.

While modern technology has given Americans the ability to watch Congress work, Congress discourages us from paying attention. Any business or elected official with a low approval rating of 17 percent would make regaining customer confidence its highest priority. Congress should make the same commitment. It can do this in two ways. It can commission experts from business, television, training, and marketing to develop more interesting formats to conduct committee and floor business. Otherwise members of Congress can test a range of formats to identify those that are most appealing to the public and helpful to the members.

ADVERTISEMENT

Start hearings with a short bipartisan video created by the majority and minority staff that explains the topic of the hearing and its impact on the country. Spend less time asking questions of the witnesses and more time engaging them in problem solving discussions. Give the public a much greater voice by inviting television viewers to submit online questions for witnesses or suggest solutions. Create podcasts and video summaries of hearings so interested citizens can be briefed quickly.

Similarly, House and Senate leaders could test out new floor ideas like conducting monthly moderated debates on the major issues of the day. Conduct a weekly national call in program where the leaders or policy experts of both parties respond to screened questions from the public. Conduct live televised conversations with small groups of members from both parties to help the public better understand the issues and policy options. Change the archaic language used on the House and Senate floors so the legislative process is understandable to the public.

Increasing citizen interest in Congress will not solve all the problems that have contributed to legislative dysfunction. But Congress stands a much better chance of reducing gridlock if more Americans pay attention to legislative work and more members feel accountable to them.

Rick Shapiro is a management consultant who works with both Democratic and Republican members of Congress. He served as the former executive director and is currently a consultant for the Congressional Management Foundation. He is a senior fellow and consultant for the Democracy Fund.