Apr 1, 2019

6 Key Takeaways: How Past Reform Efforts Can Help Transform Today’s Congress

Approximately once in a generation, there is an attempt to reform Congress. Since 1946, there have been four major reform efforts with the last one in 1993. This means that the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress has a substantial opportunity to make lasting change for generations to come. What are the lessons learned from past efforts? And how can they guide the committee’s work?

Last week, the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress held its second hearing, “Congressional Reform Efforts of the Past and Their Effect on Today’s Congress,” with five congressional scholars who reflected on what worked—and what didn’t—during past initiatives. Witnesses varied across organizations and experiences: Dr. John Lawrence from the University of California’s Washington Center; Walter Oleszek, a senior specialist at the Congressional Research Service; Molly Reynolds with The Brookings Institution; Mark Strand, President of the Congressional Institute; and Don Wolfensberger, a fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center and the Woodrow Wilson Center.

Despite differing opinions of past efforts, there were six common themes on lessons learned to guide the Select Committee:

  1. Empower Committees

A key to having regular order is empowering congressional committees, but currently, there are barriers that prevent them from functioning as critical legislative consensus-builders.  One of these is that today, committee and House leadership work closely together—which often excludes individual committee members from substantially contributing to crafting legislation. This can be mended by giving more power to individual members to participate in committee deliberations, but to do so, leadership must be willing to let committees work more independently.

  1. Avoid Partisanship  

To be successful, witnesses agreed that the Select Committee must avoid the partisanship that is plaguing our political atmosphere. How can it do so when it’s so endemic in our society? First, members of the committee should find time to get to know each other through private, informal meetings to build trust and relationships across the aisle. Second, it should seek ideas for reform from members outside the committee. Not only does this broaden the pool of ideas, but it also develops greater bipartisan buy-in once recommendations are produced.

  1. Increase Staffing 

Here’s something people across political divides in D.C. can agree on: Congress lacks the staffing it needs to adequately work through major, complex issues. Why? To start, the 1993 Committee aimed to improve cost-effectiveness by cutting staff. Yet, committee and member office staffers are the boots on the ground who move bills through the legislative process, and without them, that process would fail to function.

  1. Improve Scheduling

What’s the key to building trust? Understanding. But members of Congress have little time to spend getting to know each other, especially colleagues across the aisle, with the current four-day workweek schedule. Reforming the schedule to allow more time legislating in D.C. would not only give members greater predictability, but it would also increase the critical time needed to build trust by forging relationships —and, in turn, enable bipartisanship.

  1. Build Public Trust

It’s no secret that deep-rooted partisanship is driving the political narrative. That’s why it’s easy for members to use their floor time each week to drive political messages. However, words carry extraordinary power, which means members should use their floor time wisely. Instead of mud-slinging, they should be leveraging optimism and bipartisanship.

  1. Gain Leadership’s Support

One issue that past reform efforts struggled with was gaining support from congressional leadership. So, how can the Select Committee avoid this pitfall? One idea is building buy-in for ideas from members across the political spectrum. Gauge the interests and ideas of a diverse set of members and use their thoughts to examine options for reform. The Select Committee as an overall concept already has the support of leadership, but to garner support for specific recommended reforms, it should keep leadership apprised of its work along the way.

Aside from these shared ideas for future reform based on Congress’s past efforts, Bipartisan Policy Center Fellow Don Wolfensberger shared six elements that he believes makes a reform effort successful. View them here.

The Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress has a unique opportunity to make lasting change. To do so, it should learn from lessons of the past to create a revitalized future.

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