Newly minted House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., began his first day on the job promising committee process, regular order and civility — a good start and tall order. In his Aug. 1 Washington Post op-ed, the California Republican observed that committees “act as idea factories for policies from both sides, and as majority leader I will commit to the committee process and regular order.” Moreover, he recognized that building relationships is essential “to help restore civility,” and said that while “friendships alone won’t break Washington’s logjam, … a sense of mutual respect is necessary for constructive dialogue.”
In those simple phrases, McCarthy summed-up what many both inside and outside Congress, including the past four speakers, have been saying for years is wrong with Washington and what should be done to fix it. One of the most recent outside critiques to that effect comes from the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Commission on Political Reform, co-chaired by former Senate majority leaders Trent Lott and Tom Daschle, former Sens. Olympia Snowe and Dirk Kempthorne, and former Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman.
The 29-member bipartisan commission, with which I had the pleasure to work, issued its final report on June 24, “Governing in a Polarized America: A Bipartisan Blueprint to Strengthen Our Democracy.” The three-part analysis covers problems with elections, Congress and citizen engagement. In the Congress piece, the commission identifies “the re-election imperative” as driving the modern culture of Congress, with power now concentrated in party leaders at the expense congressional committees and “a culture of positive legislating.”
The commission does not recommend a comprehensive set of formal rules changes for what it sees as a dysfunctional Congress but instead proposes a series of common sense building blocks to engender trust among members, across parties and branches, and through a fully-functioning committee system.
Five-day workweeks, with three-weeks in Washington synchronized between the bodies, followed by one-week district and state work periods, are urged to enable Congress to properly perform its legislative responsibilities. A two-year budget and appropriations process is put forward both to ensure greater fiscal regularity and give authorizing committees time to carry-out their policymaking and oversight roles.
Periodic bipartisan caucus gatherings, both to explore areas for joint action and to build closer relationships among members across party lines are proposed, as are more frequent bipartisan leadership meetings with the president. Majority and minority party members alike should be afforded greater opportunities to participate in committee, floor and conference deliberations to foster consensus building around legislative products that can garner public acceptance.
How is it that that so many leaders of both parties have periodically called for restoring the regular order but have failed to make good on their promises? It’s not a matter of hypocrisy, a lust for personal power or opposition party resistance. It is due more to a culture of convenience that has grown up around non-deliberative legislative shortcuts that free-up members to spend much of their time in Washington raising campaign funds for themselves and parties, followed by four-day weekends in their home states mending political fences (and raising more campaign cash).
The re-election imperative and culture of convenience are powerful counterforces against restoring a culture of legislating. To make that transition will not require a major overhaul of House and Senate rules but simply a strong commitment by leaders and followers alike to reactivate a legislative process already in place and bind it with the types of relationships the new majority leader says are essential to a civil, functioning body.
Cultural change is an arduous challenge but most members realize our system cannot go on as it has –hyper-polarized and gridlocked — and survive. Members must work at reestablishing the respect and confidence of the American people and that means working once again as a full-time, fully representative legislative body. Happy Constitution Day next week!
Don Wolfensberger is a resident scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center and former staff director of the House Rules Committee. Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.