Why the ‘Fix Congress’ committee should continue to work
In September, after nearly two years of work, the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress published its final report – a set of eight dozen recommendations to help make the Congress more efficient and responsive to the public.
As majority Democrats set their priorities for the new Congress, they should commit to committee reauthorization.
Much has been written about the committee’s work as a bipartisan light. Its members are laudatory about the space he provided for crossing the aisles Cooperation, and outside defenders have applauded the result: sets of detailed recommendations that would truly improve the way the House does its job, from reforms to the budget 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, support (or do permanent), the modernization committee would also be a 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 âprocedural entrepreneursâ. In each 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 as then, are particularly drawn to the workings of the institution, but rarely have the opportunity to do much about it. “Internal operations at the House have always interested me” said GOP Representative Rodney Davis of Illinois, yet his assignment on the Modernization Committee was “the first opportunity in more than a decade to take an in-depth internal look at the workings of the House.”
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 new and disbelieving eyes, and with the help of former reformers adopted an ambitious agenda to remake Congress. It was distinctly conflictual approach, where the reforms were not studied and debated so thoughtfully as they were decreed and fought relentlessly.
Those that were passed – from televised committee meetings to ground procedures allowing more votes on controversial issues – generated a range 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 politically sensitive issues (assignments), have thorny partisan histories (the Office of Technology Assessment), or are really complex (biennial budgeting) are provided with a waiting area for careful treatment by Reform 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.
Blanket in local newspapers was congratulations and approval. A newspaper in the Western Washington District of Derek Kilmer, 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 the Congress schedule or hearing formats, most be careful that the people they send to Congress make a concerted effort to improve by compromise a broken branch of government.
Perhaps more importantly, the Modernization Committee represents a significantly better approach to updating Congress than previous waves of reforms – and an approach less likely to upset existing power structures so drastically that reforms are perfected. quickly.
The story of legislative reform is characterized by great bursts of energy followed by obscure legacies.
The 1946 law reorganization of the Congress – which included sweeping budget reforms, streamlining of committee skills 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. Thus the approach intended the far-reaching provisions of the law to be disappointment.
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 rapid, sweeping change.
The Modernization Committee, under popular direction, has made considerable efforts to involve members of the entire 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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