How Can We Make Congress Work Better?


Ray Smock is director of the Robert C. Byrd Center for Legislative Studies at Shepherd University. He was historian of the U. S. House of Representatives from 1983 to 1995.

Credit: Wiki Commons.

Those of us who follow the work of Congress have known for some time that this vital constitutional institution is not functioning very well, if at all. Many books, articles, reports, blogs, and a chorus of talking heads, from both sides of the political spectrum have offered analysis, explaining what is wrong and in some cases suggesting how to fix it.

On November 27 a new report, “Getting Back to Legislating: Reflections of a Congressional Working Group,” written by Don Wolfensberger, a long-time top Hill staffer and congressional scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, states the case as clearly and succinctly as anything I have seen. This report is only 29 pages long, including 11 pages of tables.

The Executive Summary of the report is a model of brevity that even a busy member of Congress has time to read. It is one page long. I don’t say this to be sarcastic. Anyone who works for top government officials knows that you need to get your message onto a single page so it can be read between floors on the elevator. First you have to grab attention. The details can follow later.

For the past year and a half the Bipartisan Policy Center held a series of meetings on “How to Fix Congress.” The report is a distillation of the ideas of congressional scholars, current and former members of Congress, senior congressional staff members, and others.

Here are a few key observations from the Executive Summary: “The central thread running through the sessions was that the culture of Congress has changed dramatically over the last half century, from a culture of legislating to a culture of campaigning. ... The regular order of deliberative lawmaking has given way to winning at all costs, and bipartisan compromise is rare. ... The roundtable members agree that the culture cannot be changed by bold procedural fixes and instead requires a change of will and mindset by party leaders and followers, pressured from the outside by the president, the people, the media, and interest groups desiring a better functioning system.”

The report offers specific things that need to be fixed. You can read these in the Executive Summary. The suggestions are profoundly straightforward and practical. The bottom line is that what is broken about Congress is the will of congressional leaders and rank-and-file members to do their constitutional duty to govern. This means engaging in the art of compromise. It means working across the aisle and seeing members of the opposite party as political opponents, not enemies.

But lest we put all the blame on those who serve in the House and Senate, we have to face the truth of the fact that if Congress is divided to the point of dysfunction then perhaps “We the People” are to blame for electing representatives and senators who do not represent our better angels but only represent our fears and our anger over forces we cannot fully control. We have elected too many demagogues and ideologues, some of whom do not even believe in the federal government or believe that government is too big and the way to make it smaller is to destroy its ability to govern.

With the rise of television campaigning, the arrival of the Internet, the development of the 24-hour, seven-days-a-week news cycles, the creation of cable networks specializing in left- or right-wing politics, and the incredible increase in the sums of money spent on campaigns in recent elections, we seem to have lost the ability to limit the time we campaign. As the Wolfensberger report shows, campaigning is endless. There are no longer times for political wounds to heel and for cooler heads to prevail.

Civility has suffered. Campaigns have always been rough. Mean things have always been said about opponents. But after the elections the work of government usually went on. Now days we just fight all the time and there is no time to build friendships or find common ground. Our elected representatives spend far too much of their time raising money for their next campaign and the tested way of raising money is by demonizing your specific opponent or the entire other party.

The Wolfensberger report states that “incivility is not a cause of congressional dysfunction but rather a symptom of the deeper divisions that prevent and discourage Members from getting to know each [other] personally across party lines.” Since too many members, especially in the House, don’t know or trust the person they may be debating, they refuse to debate and fall back on prepared talking points that follow a party line or an ideological position. While the Wolfensberger report puts it more gently, the bottom line in too many cases is that the members who refuse to debate, or show a willingness to compromise, may not be capable of it. They may not be smart enough or confident enough in their staked-out positions to risk admitting they may not possess all the answers. They got elected on talking points and they stick with them once in office. Congress cannot draft legislation or govern the nation from talking points. Talking points work during elections and they work on Fox News or MSNBC. They have no significant place in the give and take of a serious deliberative body which, in theory at least, should be composed of the best and brightest practical, pragmatic citizens from each state or congressional district.

We need to start electing more people to the House and Senate who want government to work and do not subscribe to the idea that government is the problem. It is a matter of our will as citizens to do better at election time. And it is a matter of the will of those we elect to do the job they were elected to do, which is to be legislators and partners in governing this nation. No change of House or Senate rules, no internal reforms (although some are needed) can have a greater impact on Congress than the pure act of human will to rise above party and ideology in the interests of the whole country.

Maybe we need a million people to march on Capitol Hill, not carrying banners that have slogans on the many single issues that divide us, but all carrying the same banner with the simple message: FIND COMMON GROUND.

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