Fixing Congress

by Michael Cain

In the last few years there’s been an enormous amount written about (1) what’s wrong with Congress and (2) how to fix the problem. The beginning of the new year, and the beginning of the 114th Congress, seem like an appropriate time to visit those questions once again. I’ll sum up my take on the first in a single sentence: the fundamental problem with Congress is that it doesn’t have enough to do to keep 535 members busy. I know that sounds a bit silly, given the panic mode that the 113th Congress was in coming down towards its holiday adjournment. Bear with me, please.

For the last century, Congress has been involved with fewer and fewer of the details of legislation. Consider the Affordable Care Act. Despite complaints that the 961 pages that make up the two bills implementing the law were ridiculously long, that count is dwarfed by the 10,535 pages of regulations that had been published by October, 2013 [1]. While the statute is unlikely to change except in minor ways in the next couple of years, it’s a sure thing that hundreds if not thousands more pages of regulations will be added. Or consider the issue of greenhouse gas emissions, which I believe will be one of the preeminent issues of this half-century. Whether to regulate and how to regulate is being decided without – to this point – any action by Congress whatsoever. You can make all sorts of arguments for why this is the common practice: progressive power grab, an increasingly complex world in which Congress must depend on experts, etc. Regardless, Congress is seldom involved in the details of policy.

So, if Congress doesn’t deal with the large mass of details, what about the “big picture” decisions? Today, doing that requires a situation where a majority of the House [2], a 60-vote majority of the Senate, and the Oval Office all agree that something big should be done. That’s been a pretty infrequent occurrence over the last decade-plus: tax cuts in the face of apparently large budget surpluses, things associated with the Department of Homeland Security, adding Medicare Part D benefits, and the ACA come to mind. The budget, nominally the most important thing Congress considers, less so. The last time Congress passed all twelve appropriations bills was 1997. Another difficulty with big-picture changes is that there are simply fewer places where the new big things can be done. Congress is much more likely to face changing an existing big thing. That can be difficult because special interest groups who have adjusted to the current thing mostly oppose changes. Short version of the last two paragraphs: Congress has painted itself into a corner where there’s not all that much legislating that’s possible to do.

What would we expect the end-game to be if Congress has largely taken itself out of the legislating business? I would argue that where we are is not a surprise. Fewer bills passed, because there are fewer new program areas to consider, and adjustments to existing programs are handled by regulation rather than legislation. Greater animosity between the President and members of Congress from the other party, largely arguing over how the bureaucracy is filling in the regulatory details. More and more members saying silly things in public because they don’t have a whole lot else to keep them busy. That last one is an even greater risk for newer members because of the way Congress organizes its work. Leadership positions and committee chairs are largely reserved for people who have been in office for decades. Unsurprisingly, too many members of Congress act like bored children.

For fixing this, I’m going to limit the range of things I allow myself to consider: no constitutional amendments; no Supreme Court reversals of a hundred years of precedents about independent agencies. Instead, two changes that can be done to the rules by which each chamber operates. First, the session ends on the 30th of June, period. It is no harder to pass a panic-mode continuing budget resolution in June than it is in December. Leave in provisions for leadership to call members back to Washington for an emergency. My preference would be that such emergencies be confined to a single subject. Second, while Congress is in session, members practice something that approximates the full-time work week the rest of us are used to. Convene Monday through Friday at 9:00. Day-to-day floor work doesn’t take all that long, so recess appropriately to allow committees to do their things.

I admit that these rule changes would impose greater personal hardships on some members than on others. The members from Maryland or Delaware can probably catch a relatively brief train ride home on Friday from Washington, where the West Coast members face six hours flying time plus airport delays each way. A variation on one of Will Truman’s proposals can fix that. Two months on the East Coast, two months on the West Coast, and two months somewhere in the middle of the country [3]. If the necessary information to conduct business can’t be made available to members in those locations, some IT director needs to lose their job. It’s the Age of the Internet, isn’t it?

[1] Page counts from this article.

[2] That assumes that the House majority leaders are also in favor. At one point this past year, it was clear that the Senate-approved immigration bill would pass if it reached the House floor. Republican leadership in the House declined to allow that vote to occur.

[3] North Platte, Nebraska or Dodge City, Kansas would be interesting choices on multiple levels.

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12 thoughts on “Fixing Congress

  1. I’m not sure about this. One of the reasons, a big one i think, for Congress to do less legislating is they want to avoid the big contentious issues. All the R’s and some D’s would have been happy to do nothing about HCR for the last 6 years except for make a few speeches. Immigration, similar situation except Congress has done nothing. Fixing SS….nothing at all. Making speeches, yakking on the news and flapping their gums about NEA grants or other financially tiny matters is so much easier than standing up loudly for how to fix a major issue, risking their butts and actually proposing solutions since that is, like you know, hard.

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  2. What are we assuming it is that they should be doing (agreed goals)?

    Why do we assume they are qualified to do it (that they could succeed at it if they tried)?

    Why do we assume they are benevolent and are acting for our interests rather than their own (or to be generous that our interests are properly aligned)?

    Why do we assume that even if we do agree what they should be doing, that we do agree they are capable, that we do agree they are benevolent that they are better at accomplishing these than alternative sources of coordination?

    Don’t get me wrong, I am sure we can agree there are some things they can do and should do and would be good at doing compared to alternatives.

    In general my thought is that they should be working to get out of the way by endorsing robust yet concise rules and institutions which allow the rest of us to supply our own goals, to solve them cooperatively via experimentation and gradual learning.

    Congress has long since lost sight of how it can add value. As such it probably isn’t adding much value, and may be actively trying to do things which will will perversely cause more harm than good.

    They need a paradigm shift…. A fundamental course correction. I am not holding my breath. The question then becomes how successful future generations can be with this weight dragging them down. Time will tell.

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    • Roger,
      We damn well don’t assume they’re acting in our interests. However, I say the same thing about the real estate agent,and people still pay them to do their jobs. Awareness of a conflict of interest is not an excuse for walking away from the conversation [you can, of course, say that “congress making more laws is bad”… but that’s a totally different topic.]

      What congress ought to be giving the Executive Branch, at minimum, is a window into people’s struggles… and perhaps developing new ideas.

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  3. I’d oppose the idea of a hard limit requiring Congress to recess on any particular date. It creates too much opportunity for those same bored children to engage in gamesmanship with the few important things they actually do. Also, a Congress in recess leaves most day today decision-making overtly in the hands of the president. We have Congress in session for long periods of time at least in part to serve as a check against executive overreach. (Or so the theory goes. In practice? YMMV.)

    Congressional committees actually do convene in places throughout the country, not just on Capitol Hill. Certainly, we could have more of this, with the expectation that it increases citizen involvement. That does not particularly need to involve moving the capital from Washington to some other location. As you note, this is the age of the Internet so it matters less where most of the principal bureaucracies are located.

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  4. Actually what is proposed is done by a number of state legislatures. They meet for a limited period and if need be the governor calls special sessions for defined purposes. It does work better but even there the first part of the session very little is accomplished One would need deadlines such as the budget must be passed by the first of may, and appropriation bills passed by june 15 etc.

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  5. I am largely with Burt and Greginak.

    I am not entirely sure that many people in Congress want to fix big problems especially because we are entering an entrenched period of hyperpartisanship (or more likely returning) to one. We still have a party whose belief is that the Federal Government should do as little as possible and people who want a paradigm shift to make the people believe so as well.

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    • Partisanship matters, but I’m arguing that even without that it’s harder for Congress to do big things because there are so few big things that the federal government is not already deeply involved in. Major changes in big federal programs are harder than doing something big from scratch, so long as sizable majorities agree something needs to be done. I’ve argued before that the Dems moved six or so years too soon on health care finance reform. By 2016, the insurance company “offenses” would have gotten more egregious, more employers would have dropped full-sized group plan benefits, and it would have been feasible to do something considerably simpler than what we got (without the panic mode stuff that happened in the Senate). I firmly believe that in 2017, even if the Republicans were to win a House majority, a 60-seat Senate majority, and the White House, that they will find it hard to do more than tinker around the edges — too many large interests will work hard to block big changes. Eg, states that have not yet accepted the Medicaid expansion are going to find themselves under enormous pressure to do so from their hospital associations in the next two years.

      The argument is that Congress has succeeded in doing one of the things that I was often trying to accomplish in my tech jobs — make their job a whole lot smaller.

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  6. The problem isn’t so much with Congress, I think, as with the electorate. Or more specifically, the way we’ve structured the electoral structure of the electorate.

    Or put this way, your argument assumes the primary job of Congress is to govern, but I’d say the primary job of Congress is to get re-elected, and so everything else follows from how we structure that electoral process.

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    • I suppose I’m making it easier for them to do that. Stuck in Washington for six months doing the dull second job, then free for six months to concentrate on fund raising, constituent service, and all those other things that result in the “Congress has an approval rating of 20%, but individual Congress critters have a rating of 80% in their home districts.” Still, I regard 100 bored Congress critters in Washington as much more dangerous to good governance happening than 100 bored Congress critters scattered around the country.

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