By Betsy Wright Hawkings
When we at the Democracy Fund Voice set out to identify the roots of congressional dysfunction through our systems mapping project, we didn’t worry too much about making our case. Fewer than 2 percent of the bills originating in the House of Representatives become law; nearly two-thirds of respondents to a recent survey of Washington-based congressional staff reported that they were looking for new employment; and fewer than 10 percent of Americans recently polled by Gallup say they have a great deal of trust in Congress. Clearly, Congress needs help. The question is what to do about it.
In developing our systems map, we identified factors and dynamics inside and outside Congress that work to undermine the effective functioning of the institution. We also identified several interrelated narratives describing the drivers of that dysfunction. Now we are developing strategies to reverse these patterns of congressional dysfunction.
In considering the best way to address this dysfunction, we are guided by a long-term goal: to have functional democratic institutions that empower the American people by effectively addressing national needs. In the near term, we seek a congressional system that fulfills its constitutional responsibilities and gains public trust by overcoming obstructionism and gridlock.
What does reversing obstructionism and overcoming gridlock look like? It should include the following:
1. Congressional members who collaborate openly on a bipartisan basis.
2. Use of the committee process to draft legislation. (Remember that?)
3. Rewarding members for legislative efforts — not just partisan loyalty — and not penalizing those who work across the aisle to advance substantive legislation.
4. No hamstringing other branches of government through politically motivated crises.
5. Budgets passed on a regular basis.
6. Prompt votes on the confirmation of presidential nominees.
7. Effective and regular oversight of federal programs.
8. Conference committees to reach agreement on any differences between House and Senate legislation.
9. Appropriations bills completed before the end of the fiscal year.
Apparently, these common-sense solutions are easier said than done. Why? Through our investigation, we found three key obstacles to curing dysfunction in the congressional system:
1. Congress lacks the internal capacity necessary to formulate public policy independently of outside interests.
2. Congress receives a distorted view of Americans’ public-policy preferences because of the exaggerated influence of some organized constituencies and the disengagement of others.
3. The political incentives for members in the current electoral environment exacerbate hyper-partisanship within Congress.
If these problems are not addressed, the congressional system will continue to be degraded by dysfunction. Accordingly, we have identified three sets of leverage opportunities affecting congressional internal capacity (green), constituent engagement (orange), and congressional electoral politics (pink). (Click here for interactive map.)
Our systems analysis of congressional performance shows that these challenges are all related. Systems thinking indicates that tackling just one of these at a time might exacerbate another. Hence our strategy takes an integrated approach.
What does this mean for constituents who have interests before Congress? It means that since they are part of the system, they are also part of the potential solution.
Consider the following statistics from the Congressional Management Foundation. 95 percent of Representatives rate “staying in touch with constituents” as most critical to their effectiveness. Representatives work an average of 70 hours per week when the House is in session and 59 hours per week when it is not in session, with approximately 13 meetings per day on a wide array of issues. And finally, constituent visits to congressional offices have “some” or “a lot” of influence on undecided legislators, according to 97 percent of congressional staff — making this the most effective strategy for communicating with members of Congress. All of the many constituents who visit Congress every year share a common need: for the legislative branch to work toward addressing their concerns. The statistics show that they have the ears of their representatives in Congress.
More than 50 new Senators and more than 260 new Representatives have been elected to “fix Washington” since 2010. What if all the grassroots organizations who spend millions every year flying constituents to Washington had this one priority? And what if there was a bill to do it?
House Concurrent Resolution 169, bipartisan legislation introduced by Reps. Darin LaHood (R-IL) and Daniel Lipinski (D-IL), would create a Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress — a forum for members of the House and Senate to propose their solutions. What better time than the present? Confidence in our institutions, especially Congress, is at an all-time low; petitions to Congress are at all-time high; and the ability of the system to process and respond to these demands is at the breaking point. A non-controversial effort to create a forum for fixing the system is a solution every interest can and should support.
Betsy Wright Hawkings is the Director of the Governance Program at the Democracy Fund Voice, a bipartisan foundation working to ensure that our political system is able to withstand new challenges and deliver on its promise to the American people.