Congress can be partisan and productive to benefit citizens

Congress can be partisan and productive to benefit citizens
© Greg Nash

The impeachment inquiry has revealed a great deal about the state of American democracy and has left many more questions unanswered. Can Congress survive this clash and still function as an effective legislative body? Will we only dive deeper into dysfunction and tribalism?

Surprisingly, the answers to these questions will depend in part on a committee that has nothing to do with the impeachment process. One morning late last month on Capitol Hill, in a room packed with cameras, acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire testified before the House Intelligence Committee on the now infamous call between President Donald Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. It was the day the ongoing impeachment battle began in earnest.

At the same time, in a smaller room with far fewer cameras present, I had the privilege of testifying before the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress. The committee, established this year to study ways to enhance the functioning of Congress, was holding a hearing on improving civility and collaboration in the legislative branch. Though it might seem the two hearings were taking place in separate universes, the truth is that the work of this committee is more relevant than ever.

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Conflict and tumult have defined our democracy since the founding of our nation, but so have progress and collaboration. Partisanship and productivity have not always been antonyms. Even in the depths of the acrimonious Clinton impeachment proceedings, lawmakers regularly passed significant bipartisan bills. Now, even on its best days, Congress struggles to keep on the lights of the federal government. A combination of obsolete rules and missed opportunities have undermined its work.

Rather than pine for gentler times, fixate on unrealistic proposed fixes, or simply give up, we need to strengthen the ability of Congress to have better fights. The House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress is key to this effort. To improve Congress, we need to first question the assumption that it is broken beyond repair. While myriad incentives pull lawmakers apart, many of them are correctable.

Trusting relationships between lawmakers, the backbone of a functioning deliberative body, have become more difficult to establish and maintain. Many members, partisan as they may seem, value personal bonds with colleagues across the aisle. Unfortunately, misguided rules around travel have complicated members taking trips together. The legislative calendar discourages meaningful interaction and hamstrings productivity.

Committees, once a place for fact finding and collaboration, have seen their authority wane. As a result, hearings now tend to be settings for members to impress with polemics and sound bites. The term “hearing” itself is at odds with what more often occurs. Members give opening remarks then, thanks to their overbooked schedules, promptly head for the door. Staff critical to the institution are generally overwhelmed by the crush of daily expectations and left with little time to develop deep expertise or build relationships with peers from across the aisle.

If Congress is to overcome its dysfunction, it needs to address these challenges. During its brief tenure, the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress has held hearings on subjects from the budget and appropriations process, a timely topic once again, to the legislative calendar and schedule, to the opportunities and resources available to staff. It actively sought input from current and former colleagues.

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The committee published more than two dozen recommendations that were unanimously approved by its members. They address issues that hinder collaboration and creativity in the legislative process. They suggest opening opportunities for members to form bonds with colleagues and expanding the capacity of staff to a level consistent with the needs of Congress as a coequal branch of government, among other ideas.

The virtue of the committee extends beyond its recommendations, valuable as they are. The proceedings themselves demonstrate what is possible when lawmakers seek to develop solutions and seek consensus. Representatives Derek Kilmer and Tom Graves, who lead the committee, deserve credit for holding hearings where witnesses are asked real questions, rather than ones that seek yes or no answers. As a result, engagement and participation at hearings have been notably high.

While the committee has made meaningful headway, it has more work to do. To have a truly lasting impact on the institution, the committee must also seek to build support for its reforms among members of Congress as a whole. Authentic consensus building is often slow and challenging, but ultimately essential to rebuilding deliberative policymaking capacity.

Congress should extend the committee through the end of next year on Capitol Hill, so that it can continue seizing opportunities to strengthen the legislative branch. As the impeachment battle escalates, this work is as needed as ever. The committee should give all of us optimism for the ability of the legislative branch to overcome its dysfunction and address the challenges facing our nation. The committee deserves our public support, and maybe even a few cameras covering its next hearing.

Jason Grumet is founder and president of the Bipartisan Policy Center.