A lot of ink is being spilled about the speakership drama in the U.S. House, the demands by members of the conservative Freedom Caucus, and the turmoil besetting the Republicans who run Capitol Hill. There is a pervasive sense in Washington that Congress has gone, at least temporarily, off the rails.
Even members of Congress are saying it. “I think the House is bordering on ungovernable right now,” one prominent Republican told NBC earlier this month. I’ve been around congressional politics for over 50 years, and I can’t ever remember hearing a member of Congress say such a thing.
All this attention on the crises of the moment suggests that resolving them will fix Congress. It won’t. There are three deep-seated issues that have to be addressed before Congress can play a constructive role in sustaining our place in the world and tackling the tough economic and social issues we face at home.
The first sounds simple, but it is not: Congress should work its will by letting its members vote on the major issues of the day. In legislatures, whoever controls procedure usually controls results. In Congress, leaders — and sometimes followers — in both parties for years have manipulated the process to get the results they want.
Omnibus bills and continuing resolutions are part of this. Leaders try to avoid tough issues if their caucus members don’t want to vote on them. The 60-vote requirement to avoid a filibuster in the Senate plays a role. So does the “Hastert Rule” in the House, under which a majority of the majority caucus has to give its approval before a measure moves forward.
These all carry a cost. Crucial issues facing the American people don’t get addressed. Congress moves from crisis to crisis. Americans give up on the institution. And members get frustrated when they can’t vote on issues they know their constituents want Congress to address. Giving members of the House and the Senate a fair shot at addressing the nation’s challenges would deal Congress back into the policy-making arena.
Second, Congress over the years has developed several bad habits that it needs to fix. These include huge bills that become vehicles for special-interest provisions and leadership wish-lists; bypassing the committee process; concentrating power in the leaders; curbing the participation of most members; and limiting debates and amendments.
The most pernicious of these is the practice of legislating by omnibus bills. These consist of hundreds of provisions, usually drafted in the dead of night by leadership staff — not members of Congress — brought to the floor with scant time for anyone to read them, limited time for debate, and few amendments allowed. They’re usually timed to come up just before a key deadline on a single up-or-down vote, so that the leadership can threaten a government shutdown if the bill fails.
The sad part here is that there are a lot of members who’ve never known anything different. An entire generation on Capitol Hill thinks that bills they had no part in shaping, are unable to debate, and have no choice but to pass are the way Congress runs.
It’s not. There’s another way, and it brings me to my third point. We have over 200 years of experience on Capitol Hill that have taught us how to run a legislature so that the voice of the people can be better heard, multiple viewpoints get considered, and ordinary legislators get a fair shot at influencing the results. It’s called the “regular order,” and it involves committees with authority holding hearings, debating issues, and reporting bills to the floor, where members get several chances to shape the legislation through amendments. The regular order requires negotiation and compromise, and gives members a fair crack at crafting policy for the nation.
The American people want Congress to work. They don’t expect a solution to everything, and they certainly don’t expect miracles. But they do expect a Congress that tries to make progress and that’s capable of developing creative approaches to the major problems of the day. The frustration for me is that we know how to do things better with a time-tested process, but members of Congress simply ignore it.
Lee Hamilton is a Distinguished Scholar, Indiana University School of Global and International Studies; and a professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.