Why the ‘Fix Congress’ committee should continue to work
In September, after nearly two years of work, the House Special Committee on Congress Modernization released its final report – a set of eight dozen recommendations to help make Congress more efficient and responsive to the public.
As majority Democrats set their priorities for the new Congress, they should commit to the committee reauthorization.
Much has been written about the committee’s work as a bipartisan light. Its members are rave about the space it provided for cross-aisle cooperation, and outside advocates have applauded the result: sets of detailed recommendations that would genuinely improve the way the House does its job, from reforms to budgetary process and regulatory oversight to staff retention and administrative efficiency. There is little doubt about the quality of the committee’s product.
But there are other compelling reasons why House Democrats should support reauthorization. Beyond the obvious need for higher quality ideas, maintaining (or making permanent) the Modernization Committee would also be good policy.
First, a congressional reform panel offers members interested in the health of the institution a structured place to channel their expertise.
Political scientist Roger H. Davidson once invented these reformist members as “procedural entrepreneurs”. In every era, he observed, “at least a few members of Congress cultivate a keen interest in the institution itself: how Congress works, how its virtues can be nurtured, how its effectiveness can be improved.” Davidson was studying the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946. But the observation is still true.
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Some members, now and then, are particularly drawn to the workings of the institution, but rarely have the opportunity to do much about it. “I have always been interested in the internal operations of the House,” says GOP Representative Rodney Davis of Illinois, yet his assignment on the Modernization Committee was “the first opportunity in more than a decade to take a look. in-depth internal review on the functioning of the Chamber “.
Providing this opportunity at all times is important. The absence of a dedicated space to study, debate and propose reforms does not suppress calls for reform, but it risks making these calls heavier and, potentially, more aggressive.
For example, the arrival of the so-called Watergate Babies, the huge class of MPs elected after President Richard Nixon resigned in 1974 on pledge to make government more honest and transparent, precipitated a period of bitter battles. within parties. The newcomers arrived with fresh and incredulous eyes, and with the help of former reformers adopted an ambitious agenda to remake Congress. This was a distinctly confrontational approach, where reforms were not so thoughtfully studied and debated as they were decreed and for which they fought tirelessly.
Those that have happened – from televised committee sessions to ground proceedings allowing more votes on divisive issues – have generated a series of unintended consequences.
The virtue of a modernization committee is not only that it tackles difficult institutional problems, but that it provides an isolated and confined space to do so. Reform topics that are politically sensitive (assignments), have thorny partisan histories (Office of Technology Assessment), or are truly complex (biennial budget) are given space for careful treatment by reforming members.
Second, while the work of the Modernization Committee may not touch on the same political issues as members’ work on health care, employment or climate change, it still pays political dividends.
The coverage in the local newspapers was of congratulations and approval. A newspaper in the Derek Kilmer district of western Washington, the Democratic chairman of the committee, called the panel’s work promoting “civility and bipartisanship,” for example. And while many voters are unlikely to care about Congress’ timing or hearing formats, most do care that the people they send to Congress are making a concerted effort to improve themselves by compromising a branch. broken government.
Perhaps more importantly, the Modernization Committee represents a significantly better approach to updating Congress than previous waves of reform – and an approach less likely to upset existing power structures so drastically that reforms are perfected. quickly.
The history of legislative reform is characterized by great bursts of energy followed by obscure legacies.
The 1946 law reorganizing Congress – which included sweeping budget reforms, streamlining of committee competencies, and the start of merit-based funding – had historic ambition. In practice, however, most of its fundamental changes have been scuttled. Senior members abandoned budget reforms; committee members hardly cared about more independent staff; and a proliferation of sub-committees has limited the ability of the law to curb a sprawling committee system.
Then as now, a special group had been formed and had only had two years to propose improvements. Its short lifespan puts it under great pressure. Most of his ideas were imported from political scientists and were not the product of internal deliberation and compromise. And the committee was neither truly representative of the membership nor meaningfully engaged with the regular committees that would be tasked with turning the proposed reforms into reality. And so the approach destined the far-reaching provisions of the law to disappoint.
Adaptive changes that persist take time to socialize and iterate. They benefit from an internal struggle between those who will be affected. Like any complex body, Congress is more open to disciplined and gradual change than to hasty and sweeping change.
The Modernization Committee, under recognized leadership, has made considerable efforts to involve members from across the institution in its work. He clearly engaged in careful study and deliberation of ideas and worked collaboratively with the committees responsible for the implementation of his 97 proposals.
Reducing its lifespan today would be like ending an interesting experiment that seems to be on a different path than its predecessors.
The politics of change never suggest good chances, especially on Capitol Hill. And the history of the Congress of select committees pushing through big changes does not enjoy rosy stories. The re-authorization of the modernization committee would be a sign of support for a different and smarter approach. It is a safe bet for any party committed to better government.
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