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Hill Experts Urge Return to Legislating

A group of former Senators and House members, senior staff and congressional scholars have called on Congress to change its ways.

In a series of six roundtable discussions on the culture of Congress sponsored by the Bipartisan Policy Center and the Woodrow Wilson Center, the rotating group of more than 60 insiders expressed deep concern that the political parties had strayed from Congress’ lawmaking functions and become too preoccupied with re-election and holding power.

As one of the organizers of the roundtables, along with John Fortier, director of the Democracy Project at the BPC, I was tasked with writing a summary report of the sessions.

“Getting Back to Legislating: Reflections of a Congressional Working Group” traces the evolution of Congress over four decades from a culture of legislating to a culture of campaigning, and the parallel decline of committees as the central policymaking workshops. Committee governance has been replaced by party governance, and that has led to a hyper-partisanship that often makes it difficult to reach agreement on even routine business.

The group eschewed proposing bold procedural fixes and instead urged a return to regular order in committees and on the floor, allowing more member participation in lawmaking at all levels of the process, including House-Senate conference committees. There were only six conference committees in the 112th Congress, compared with more than 60 just 20 years ago.

The group agreed that if Congress is going to get back to legislating, it will need the time to do it. That means five-day workweeks for three weeks at a time, followed by a one-week recess. Once leadership commits to allowing committees to resume full-scale legislating, without undue interference or override, it should be easy to restore an environment of deliberative lawmaking in which all members can participate.

One of the roundtable members, a former committee chairman, recounted how he had included minority members in the process from the outset, even allowing them to help shape the chairman’s mark. By the time his committee’s bills got to the floor, committee members of both parties had ownership of the legislation and gladly defended it. While such an approach is obviously not possible in all cases, it is worth emulating on those bills on which the parties have not staked out clearly opposing positions.

The floor amendment process can also be liberalized. The House Rules Committee can write more modified open rules requiring pre-printing of amendments and imposing a time cap on the amendment process. In the Senate, the majority leader can refrain from filling the tree in return for minority pledges to limit non-germane amendments.

There was surprising bipartisan agreement on the roundtable about doing away with filibusters on motions to proceed for both bills and nominations, as well as on all motions related to sending bills to conference.

It is only recently that the Senate has had to contend with filibuster threats on such motions. The majority should be able to set the floor agenda and call up its bills. Let the minority filibuster the substance of bills once called up. But at least allow for a return to debate on the issues at stake.

On making budgeting easier, three proposals would ease the delays now encountered. First, stop legislating on appropriations bills to help restore the deference and legislative responsibility owed the authorizing committees. Second, give higher priority to reauthorization bills instead of treating them as afterthoughts on their expiration dates. And third, move to a biennial budget resolution, from which the debt and discretionary spending ceilings would be transferred to a bill for statutory enactment (similar to the old Gephardt rule in the House).

By making these simple adjustments in the way things are done, starting with making sufficient time available to do them, Congress can begin to move in the direction of restoring a culture of legislating. That is something Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, committed to do at the beginning of this Congress, and he deserves encouragement from members and the public to continue.

What struck me the most about the roundtable participants was their abiding love of Congress and concern about its future. This became clear in their willingness to spend hours discussing with their colleagues of both parties how best to improve the institution’s ability to legislate in the nation’s interest. Let’s hope it’s contagious, beginning this week.

Don Wolfensberger is a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, a resident scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center, and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.

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