Congress makes bold move with new committee to fix how it runs

Congress makes bold move with new committee to fix how it runs
© Greg Nash

A new majority in the House often comes with a heartfelt promise to run the place in a better way. Sometimes real improvements are made for a time, but the majority party often loses their zeal for reform as the day to day running of the House intervenes. In the 116th Congress, however, things could be different. An overwhelming majority of Democrats and Republicans voted to create a select committee to improve the way the House functions and provide a real opportunity for more lasting change that citizens want to see. What should the select committee propose?

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First, it should seek to improve debate in the House. Members on both sides of the aisle want an opportunity for their proposals to be heard. The regular channels for this debate are clogged. Democrats rightly noted that the last session of Congress saw the highest number of closed rules in recent history. The Healthy Congress Index run by the Bipartisan Policy Center shows that the last session of Congress is only matched in its lack of open rules under the 111th Congress controlled by Democrats. The total number of open rules in those sessions was zero.

There is a balance to be struck. Members need opportunities to propose, debate, amend, and vote on legislation. But at the same time, leadership needs to run the House, and every bill should not be bogged down by dilatory or messaging provisions designed to bring the House to a stop. The select committee can perform a real service if it crafts reforms to allow for robust debate in an efficiently run House. Changes might include guaranteed opportunities for floor amendments, set days in committees where members can get consideration of their proposals, and priority for floor time on proposals that have gone through a committee process.

Second, the select committee should tackle resources and capacity. Congress is an equal and independent branch of government. It owes itself the resources needed to reach its own conclusions and to oversee the executive branch. Issues that might be taken up are improvements to legislative institutions such as the Congressional Research Service and Government Accountability Office, added expertise in areas such as science and technology, resources that might attract and retain a more expert staff such as changes in compensation and benefits, and more resources to be used for investigations and federal program oversight.

Third, it should reform the budget and appropriations process. The joint select committee last year did not produce consensus recommendations and is a cautionary tale of the difficulty of reform. However, the joint select committee did make progress in one of the most important ways that Congress can make its priorities clear, and one that takes a large chunk of time. The new select committee could again consider broad reforms such as the two year budget process. It should at least take on more basic issues of ensuring that the appropriations process starts early, that appropriations subcommittees have the time to hear from a range of voices and report bills in a timely way, and that authorizing committees have solid incentives to reauthorize programs under their jurisdiction.

Finally, the committee could consider the time that members spend in Washington. Members have important roles to play in both Washington and their districts. But in recent years, the time spent in Washington is often disjointed and too short for Congress to address important national priorities. The Bipartisan Policy Center proposed a schedule of three work weeks of five days each in Washington followed by a week in the district. Allowing for an August recess, the proposal translates into 330 days in Washington in a two year session of Congress. In the past six sessions of Congress, the House has fallen far short of that goal. Tom Daschle once quipped that with members often arriving on Tuesday and departing on Thursday, that it was difficult to run a superpower on just a Wednesday.

Addressing how the House works is no easy task, but the overwhelming bipartisan vote in favor of the creation of a new select committee is an encouraging sign that our lawmakers are serious about making changes that will last well beyond just the campaign promises of a new majority.

John Fortier serves as director of the democracy project at the Bipartisan Policy Center. He has written extensively on elections and government and is the editor of “After the People Vote: A Guide to the Electoral College.”