Program

Getting Back to Legislating: Reflections of a Congressional Working Group

By
Donald Wolfensberger

In July 2011, the Bipartisan Policy Center began a series of meetings on “How to Fix Congress” by looking at the operations of the committee system.  In 2012, the series resumed as the “Culture of Congress Roundtable Discussion Series” in collaboration with the Woodrow Wilson Center.  The meetings drew on the expertise and interest of current and former members of Congress, senators, senior staff, congressional scholars and concerned citizens.  A total of five more sessions were held, touching on such areas as leadership influences, the regular order, conference committees, and budgeting (see Appendix A for a listing of meetings and participants).

The central thread running through the sessions was that the culture of Congress has changed dramatically over the last half century, from a culture of legislating to a culture of campaigning.  The shift has taken its toll on all aspects of the institution, from committee bill markups and floor amendment debates, to conference committees and civility.  The regular order of deliberative lawmaking has given way to winning at all costs, and bipartisan compromise is rare.  While the roundtable experts agree that the current climate is not conducive to serious problem solving, no one suggests there is an easy answer for reversing course.  The roundtable members agree that the culture cannot be changed by bold procedural fixes and instead requires a change of will and mindset by party leaders and followers, pressured from the outside by the president, the people, the media, and interest groups desiring a better functioning system.  The roundtable members expressed confidence in the underlying soundness of the system and optimism that things can be turned around with gentle prodding from loving critics. While the rotating group of over 60 roundtable participants did not vote to endorse any specific reforms, listed below are some modest, incremental proposals for change suggested during the course of the discussions which the new Congress and its leaders should consider implementing:

  • Leaders should commit to five-day workweeks, with three weeks on and one week off.
  • Congress should adopt biennial budget resolutions and spin-off the discretionary spending and debt ceilings in the resolutions into a bill for enactment. 
  • Leadership should commit to fully restoring the authorization process to committees.
  • Committee chairs should commit to full minority party participation in markups.
  • Appropriations committees should refrain from authorizing in appropriations bills.
  • A more open amendment process on the floor of each house should be allowed by limiting restrictive amendment rules in the House and avoiding “filling the amendment tree” in the Senate.
  • Motions to proceed to consideration of legislation, and motions relating to going to conference in the Senate, should not be subject to filibuster.
  • Leaders should commit to restoring the use of House-Senate conference committees.
  • Leadership PACs should be abolished.
  • Members should be encouraged to deliver annual State of the Congress addresses to constituents to better educate the public about the workings of the institution.