By Robert Weiner and Jared Schwartz
Polling by CBS and Gallup shows that 73 percent of Americans disapprove of Congress, which is higher than the 70 percent who disapproved of BP's handling of the New Horizon oil spill, and BP turned the entire Gulf of Mexico into an oil slick.
Right now, there's a criminal justice bill finally passing. The bill has the support of President Trump, Rep. Paul Ryan, Sen. Chuck Grassley, Sen. Dick Durbin, Corey Booker, the Fraternal Order of Police, and the ACLU. Nevertheless, Sen. McConnell had to be dragged kicking and screaming to bring it to the floor for a vote. Mechanisms that would empower individuals and minority members to bypass the leadership would help end this sort of situation.
Even though this sort of rules reform would take away some power for leadership, it would give them great longevity. A more efficient, bipartisan Congress would help the majority prevent itself from being swept out of power in another wave of electoral rage. The rules that Pelosi and the Problem Solvers Caucus have agreed to are a start, but they don't go far enough, and they don't include the Senate. Congress -- on both sides of the Hill, House and Senate-- need a more robust rules reform package and should try to pass it on January 3rd when the House votes on rules. Maybe call it the Congress Protection Act.
Reforming the legislative process alone, though, is not enough. The most high-profile example of Congressional dysfunction, the circus-like Kavanaugh hearings just six weeks ago, was exacerbated by the current rules structure. After Dr. Christine Blasey Ford's accusation, the Republican majority and the White House-directed FBI investigators refused to call corroborating witnesses, including other women with claims or Kavanaugh's college roommates. or even verify locations by driving Ford to them. In the absence of any fuller investigation, the Republicans claimed nothing was found, Democrats used their time to hyperbolize, Ford looked unsupported, and Kavanaugh claimed he was victimized by political enemies. The public, horrified by the hearing, suffered from all sides. The Kavanaugh hearing was a terrible but true example proving the need for reform.
Congressional investigations and passing legislation are too critical to allow any party to have a monopoly over them. Empowering the minority and individual members in Congress, regardless of who is in power in the White House or "under the Dome," to quote Roll Call Editor Jason Dick's book title, would push Congress towards a fairer and more efficient system. The suggestions below would help address the two primary sources of Congressional dysfunction: partisan investigations and total agenda control by the leadership by spreading Congressional authority around.
***Hire more expert, bipartisan staff for committees. Use the staff to bridge the gap between the minority and majority, enabling informed input on bills.
***Give committee chairs the power to report some limited legislation directly to the floor. This would allow the committees with the expertise to place important items on the agenda.
***Empower the minority to require testimony from one witness for every witness the majority calls -- not just one altogether-- and alternate between majority and minority witnesses. This would help committees get the whole story and lessen the public perception that investigations are biased and pre-determined.
***Stop Congress' ability to block nonpartisan CBO and CRS reports. Any report Congress tries to hide is probably a report the American people deserve to see, such as the 2012 CRS report that Senator McConnell blocked showing that wealthy tax cuts weren't effective job creators, and government jobs were the best catalyst. Luckily, the CRS Division released the report regardless, but that should not have to happen to achieve the truth on any issue.
***Set a quantitative procedure for bills arriving on the floor with an open amendment process, with floor time restrictions allowed.
***Enact the joint committee to reform Congress proposed by Reps. Lipinski and LaHood. Give the committee teeth by promising to bring its suggestions to a vote. This could happen after any first Rules reform package is approved January 3.
Power sharing mechanisms and procedures that allow moderate, well thought out legislation to come to the floor, irrespective of what kind, will lead to a Congress that serves the American people more than it serves the majority party. Before the new House and Senate rules are voted on in January, patriots on both sides of the political spectrum and moderates in the middle should keep pushing for institutional change. A reformed House and Senate, not merely a House under a different party's leadership, would protect future reelections of members of both bodies. More importantly, it would fulfill the calling to govern wisely that so many lawmakers pursue.
Robert Weiner is former spokesman, Clinton and Bush White Houses ONDCP, House Government Operations Committee, House Narcotics Committee, House Aging Committee, and Congressmen Pepper, Koch, Rangel, and Conyers. Jared Schwartz is policy analyst, Robert Weiner Associates and Solutions for Change