Recently, I participated in a panel discussion on “The Evolving Congress” cosponsored by the Bipartisan Policy Center and National Capital Area Political Science Association. It was based on a book by that title written by a group of experts at the Congressional Research Service on its 100th anniversary. The panel had no problem agreeing that Congress has changed considerably since its inception. But there are still unresolved questions over just how and why it has evolved to what it is today, and what it might be evolving to.
Sometimes it’s hard to believe House and Senate budget resolutions had the same birth parents back in 1974. They are different in so many ways: They look different, act different, and, yes, even weigh different (more on that later).
This week the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is slated to consider the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act introduced by the committee’s chairman, Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee. The bill requires the president to submit the final agreement to Congress for a 60-day review period. The administration strongly opposes the legislation on grounds the pact is an executive agreement between the U.S., Iran and the five other nations and does not require congressional approval.
When Republicans regained control of the House in 1995 after 40 years in the minority, they vowed to eliminate the Democrats’ “king-of-the-hill” process for voting on budget resolution substitutes.
Senator Tom Cotton’s “open letter” to the leaders of Iran on negotiations over its nuclear program ran into a buzzsaw of criticism from the president, vice president, our negotiating partners and members of Congress from both parties. The main criticism: Senators should not thrust themselves directly into the middle of ongoing negotiations between the U.S. and other countries.
House Republicans painted themselves and the Senate into a corner by making Department of Homeland Security funding after Feb. 27 contingent on rolling back President Barack Obama’s unilateral immigration actions. Surely, they were fantasizing a corner with a hidden trap door and safe room.
Do you remember Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California promising last fall to return the new Congress to the regular order? The initial test came on the first major bill in the well of both houses, the Keystone XL Pipeline Act. Whereas the Senate produced a veritable gusher of amendments with all hands at the wellhead, the House reverted to a narrowly-constricted flow tube controlled by a few valve masters.
Most Americans prejudged the new Congress a failure before it even began. According to a CNN/ORC poll taken in mid-December, only 37 percent think the 114th Congress will get more done than its predecessor while 62 percent think it will get less done or be no different. But they could be wrong.
If the tone set on opening day could determine the success of Congress over the next two years, the scaffolding now encasing the Capitol dome would become a magical power grid of peace and harmony generating a steady source of national policy solutions.
On Saturday, Dec. 13, Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) attempted to block funding for the president’s executive order on immigration by raising what he called “constitutional point of order” against the homeland security portion of the cromnibus appropriations bill. It was a clever eleventh hour gambit to dramatize the issue. However, it completely missed the mark as a credible point of order because it did not cite any provision of the bill as directly violating the Constitution.
Republicans may think they put proxy voting in its grave when they changed House rules in 1995 to ban it in committees. But the issue resurfaced last month when a dispute arose in the Democratic Caucus over Illinois Rep. Tammy Duckworth’s request to vote by proxy in caucus elections because she was about to give birth to her first child.
The minority party in the House perennially complains it is treated unfairly when it comes to offering floor amendments. On some legislation it is not allowed to offer any amendments. That has been the case regardless of which party controls the House, and it’s gotten worse with each Congress dating back to the early 1990s.
Lame-duck sessions of Congress are those that occur after an election and before the new Congress. The lame ducks, of course, are those members who will not be returning in the next Congress due to retirement, defeat or running for other office. Oh, they still get paid and are still expected to vote (and most do). But, they have less incentive to show up regularly or vote the party line. That throws an element of uncertainty into lame-duck sessions and is why leaders would prefer to avoid them altogether. Nowadays, however, they are all but impossible to avoid given an appropriations process infected by an unchained malady looping in an unfinished symphony.
An interesting debate is swirling around next Tuesday’s midterm elections for Congress. It involves the extent to which the sources, amounts and uses of campaign contributions will affect not only the outcomes of various hotly contested races but the makeup, policy agenda and processes of the next Congress.
My previous column left some readers in a state of suspended agitation because I praised the revival of the Members’ Day congressional reform hearing in the Rules Committee (after a 12 year hiatus), but failed to discuss any of the specific proposals recommended. Hopefully this account will douse the ire, though it doesn’t begin to cover all the proposals submitted by the 28 members who offered testimony.
The House Rules Committee recently resurrected a custom first established in 1996 by then-Chairman Jerry Solomon, R-N.Y., inviting members of both parties to testify toward the end of the second session on rules changes they would like to see adopted in the next Congress. Solomon called the hearing “Members’ Day” to connote the open-ended opportunity for any member to suggest improvements in House operations.
Every year I take a group of Wilson Center fellows to Capitol Hill where we observe an hour of House proceedings from the gallery. Some of the fellows, especially those from other countries, are both fascinated and perplexed by the opening ceremonies — the prayer, the pledge, the welcoming of a guest chaplain, followed by a series of one-minute speeches by members on anything they want to talk about.
In his Sept. 10 address to the nation, President Barack Obama asserted he already had authority to go after the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant but would welcome congressional action to underscore the U.S. commitment. Leaders of both parties in Congress, while supportive of the president’s aims, visibly balked at holding a direct vote to authorize military action, at least before the midterm elections. It was a rare profile in bipartisanship if not courage.
To put a gentler twist on Shakespeare’s more drastic remedy: The first thing we do, let’s chill all the lawyers in Congress. That way they may become cool and practical legislators.
In our democratic policy process, there is an obvious link between popular sentiment and our elected leaders. However, matters can be somewhat murky when it comes to foreign policy. That’s due in part to the deference paid by the people and Congress to the president’s role in acting and speaking for the nation, at least at the outset of international incidents. It is also due in part to the public’s low level of knowledge and interest in foreign affairs.