By Paul M. Krawzak
CQ Roll Call
Lawmakers are quietly preparing bipartisan legislation that would create a joint congressional committee charged with producing a plan to overhaul the organization and operation of Congress and make it more accountable. Underlying it is a growing belief shared by members of both parties and the public that Congress has become dysfunctional and polarized and that change is necessary.
Advocates of a “Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress” say the unique nature of the proposed bicameral panel offers a chance of winning agreement on significant changes to rules, procedures and structures.
That in turn could lead to better governance, improved relations among members and branches of government and a restoration of public confidence. Congressional job approval routinely hovers in the low teens and sometimes even lower in public polling.
Cathy McMorris Rodgers, House GOP conference chairwoman, told CQ she is working on the plan, supports it and plans to promote it. It is a project several years in the making. Rep. Daniel Lipinski of Illinois is the only Democrat so far to publicly voice support.
“My hope is that it would be an opportunity for Congress to look at our rules and our processes and make recommendations as to how we can function more effectively on behalf of the people,” Rodgers, R-Wash., said. “And what I like about the Congress of tomorrow proposal is that it’s bipartisan, it’s bicameral, and, you look historically, and these kinds of efforts have happened in years past too.”
While the legislation is still being written, it is expected to call for creation of a joint committee made up of 12 members of the Senate and 12 from the House, appointed by the Republican and Democratic leaders of both chambers and with equal representation from both parties.
Once formed, the panel would be tasked with studying the organization, operation and functions of Congress, including how to improve relationships among members and smooth the consideration of legislation, according to an early draft of the measure. The committee would be charged with reporting its recommendations to the House and Senate by the end of the current session of Congress.
Backers of the plan were hoping the bill could be introduced as early as this week, but that goal is slipping, and now sometime before the presidential conventions later this summer is more realistic. Potential cosponsors of the bill are waiting to see the final version before they sign on. Any legislation introduced this year would die at the end of the session and have to be reintroduced next year. But supporters of the plan say getting it on the radar before the election could increase its chances of success next year.
Some people believe now may be a propitious time to advance an overhaul, given the widespread dissatisfaction with the federal government as evidenced by the success of anti-establishment campaigns waged by presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and Vermont Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary.
The biggest challenge for advocates of a joint committee could be getting Democrats on board. It’s unclear where Democratic leaders in the House and Senate will come down on the plan.
The legislation has at least some Democratic support in the form of Lipinski. “It is clear that Congress has failed at many of its core functions for years, and major reforms are necessary to better fulfill our responsibilities,” Lipinski said in a statement emailed to CQ. “While it isn’t yet clear who the lead sponsors will be, I’m proud to be an original supporter of the Joint Committee on the Congress proposal to examine the organization and function of Congress in order to get us better on track.”
Many in Congress have not heard of the proposal. Aides to top Democratic and Republican leaders said they would have to wait to see the legislation before commenting on it.
Republican Rep. James B. Renacci of Ohio said he was not familiar with the proposal for the joint committee. But after the proposal was described to him, he called it “a great idea.”
Virginia Republican Dave Brat, a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, expressed skepticism the two parties could reach a compromise. But he added, “I’m interested. I don’t want to sound close-minded.”
The legislation is the outgrowth of three years of discussions among a volunteer working group of some 35 former lawmakers and senior staff sponsored by the Congressional Institute, a not-for-profit corporation with Republican leanings that organizes conferences for lawmakers and their staffs.
The working group initially compiled a list of 40 proposals involving changes in the budget process, the debt limit, appropriations, authorizations, congressional rules and procedures. But at some point, according to Mike Johnson, a principal at OB-C Group and member of the working group, the participants realized their proposals “were not going to go anywhere.” The OB-C Group is a lobbying firm.
Johnson, onetime chief of staff to former Illinois congressman and GOP Minority Leader Robert H. Michel, said most proposals to change Congress get picked apart before they make any headway. He said the advantage of a joint committee is that it would provide a “neutral mechanism” for considering potential changes in a bipartisan setting.
In a survey commissioned by the Congressional Institute, The Winston Group, a GOP pollster, found that only 12 percent of Americans approve of the job Congress is doing, down from 27 percent in 2006. Just 19 percent said their voice is heard effectively by the government. The national poll of 1,000 registered voters was conducted April 20-21 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.
David Winston, president of The Winston Group, said a joint committee might be able to recommend a way to make the legislative process more transparent to voters. “If somebody can have a better understanding of what Congress is doing and if they know how to engage effectively, then they can have a better dialog and engagement with that member,” Winston said. “One of the key goals here is to bring some clarity to the legislative process so that their constituents can engage them.”
A paper describing the thinking behind the joint committee initiative states that “Congress suffers from functional and political gridlock, an inability or great difficulty in reaching bipartisan consensus on a whole host of critical issues.”
The paper adds that while some may argue that the fewer laws enacted, the better, “whether you believe the government ought to be bigger or smaller, more powerful or less, more activist or less, your goals cannot be realized without the passage of legislation.”
Congress has created joint committees to recommend ways to improve its operations in the past, most recently in 1992. The 1992 committee’s report was largely ignored at the time, but Congress later adopted some of its recommendations. Two earlier joint committees had a better track record, leading to enactment of Legislative Reorganization Acts in 1946 and 1970.
Mark Strand, president of the Congressional Institute, said a joint committee could benefit both parties by giving the minority an incentive to collaborate in the legislative process.
“If you have members of Congress who are completely shut out of the process, they have no interest in supporting legislation and in fact the only interest they have is to obstruct the process and tell the voters that Congress isn’t working,” Strand said. “So it’s actually in the majority’s interest to get the minority more involved in the floor process.”