Jul 23, 2019

Want a More Effective Congress? Strengthen Congressional Committees

As the clock ticks on the work of the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress and lawmakers prepare to return home for the August recess, the panel should begin to explore an issue critical to the functioning of Congress: strengthening congressional committees.

The Modernization Committee has just passed the halfway point of its charge to “investigate, study, make findings, hold public hearings, and develop recommendations on modernizing Congress” by the end of this year. On May 23, it unanimously approved its first set of bipartisan recommendations, which were focused on transparency in the legislative branch. The Committee should be applauded for this initial incremental step, its strategy to issue recommendations on a rolling basis so that more controversial ideas do not block other worthwhile proposals, and the bipartisan leadership that Reps. Derek Kilmer and Tom Graves have demonstrated as chair and vice chair.

Now, before the month-long break commences, the committee should begin to consider how to make congressional committees more functional and robust.

Why does it matter how congressional committees function? They are the backbone of the legislative process. When properly constituted, they serve as a concentration of knowledge and experience in particular areas of expertise critical to Congress as it acts on behalf of our national priorities. Ideally, committees are where legislation is initially crafted through the process of fact-finding, the weighing of various interests among committee membership, and the consideration of amendments. It is where bipartisan alliances and policies are forged, and members of Congress from both sides of the political aisle come to have a stake in the ultimate enactment of the legislation. Read our explainer on congressional committees here.

The Bipartisan Policy Center engaged with an advisory group of former senior staff to rank-and-file members, committees, and leadership to deliberate on and generate ideas for making congressional committees more effective. There are multiple means of achieving this goal, many of which do not require changing House rules.

Here are eight key ways to improve congressional committees that the Modernization Committee could consider

  1. Committees should seek out more alternative formats to engage in fact finding and deliberation beyond the more traditional setting of hearings – which too often become a stage for political messaging rather than authentic information gathering. These could include more roundtables, seminars, briefings and other informal convenings that allow for private, candid discussion and exploration.
  2. The House should go back to high school by developing some kind of “block” scheduling system like ones employed by many school systems to keep different subjects on different days. Currently, there is significant overlap among events that members are expected to attend between committee hearings and markups, constituent meetings, floor proceedings and votes, and other convenings. An improved scheduling system would allow lawmakers more time to learn about issues, be productive, conduct rigorous oversight of governmental functions, and ideally collaborate on legislation by reducing time conflicts among competing obligations.
  3. The House should reinstate requirements that committees adopt plans for conducting oversight at the start of each Congress by vote, rather than simply requiring consultation of the ranking member (the highest-ranking minority-party member of the committee) by the committee chair. On a related note, the committees should meet informally at the beginning of each Congress to develop an oversight agenda with opportunities for members from both parties to offer input. Oversight is one of Congress’s most fundamental responsibilities, and it should be conducted accordingly.
  4. Committees should continue to explore ways to allow members to engage in more in-depth questioning during hearings and should experiment with adjusting the order of questioning during hearings – for instance, based upon order of arrival or reverse order of seniority. Listening and learning are crucial predicates to legislating.
  5. The House should make each committee’s end-of-year reports more easily accessible, consider standardizing the timing of their release, and compile the reports in a centralized repository housed within an existing House committee. Transparency is key to accountability, but the current lack of consistency with which these reports are publicly shared unnecessary impedes accessibility.
  6. Standardize a vice-chair position for committees. Both the majority and minority could be required to have a junior member in such a leadership position and task them with having more regular meetings with the chair and ranking member. Incorporating more “new blood” in the process can help ensure fresh ideas and perspectives are reflected in legislation.
  7. Trainings and briefings for committee staff, as well as those in the members’ personal offices who work on committee issues, should more regularly occur on a bipartisan basis. Not only is there a need for greater opportunities for, and awareness of, professional training, but these sessions can be occasions for building relationships among staff of different parties that can be foundational for working in a more collaborative manner.
  8. Witnesses for hearings should be proposed on a bipartisan basis across all committees. No one party, person, or organization has a monopoly on good ideas. Legislation is improved and made more credible when it is the product of hearing from voices across a range of viewpoints.

None of these actions alone, or even collectively, will completely heal the divisions and shortcomings attributable to today’s congressional committees. But they would spur significant movement in the direction of a reformed and rejuvenated legislative process.

Without committees, a legislative process that is already contentious by design becomes practically dysfunctional. The result is a reduced capacity to produce results and solve problems. Empowered and well-functioning committees build a solid foundation for fact-based legislation, act as bipartisan bridge-builders through the amending process and give members more of a stake in ensuring the ultimate success of a bill on the floor. Improvements to the committee system in Congress are essential to creating a Congress that works.

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