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Opinion: Congress, It’s Time to Heal Thyself. Here’s How

Nine ways to restore public trust and its self-dignity

South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, left, talks to West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin III on Thursday while holding the “talking stick” used by senators in private meetings that helped end the recent government shutdown. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, left, talks to West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin III on Thursday while holding the “talking stick” used by senators in private meetings that helped end the recent government shutdown. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

How much lower can Congress’ reputation sink before some sense of urgency — fueled by self-preservation or simply self-respect — convinces leaders that “something” has to change?

The comparative yawn that greeted the latest government shutdown reveals how shockingly little the public now expects from Congress. The recent Edelman Trust Barometer found that trust in major institutions fell more sharply in the United States than in any of the other 28 countries surveyed. The share of Americans expressing faith in their government fell 14 points in the past year, to an alarming 33 percent.

Is this how the 535 members of Congress want to spend their careers and be remembered?

It doesn’t have to be this way. Congress has the power to restore public confidence and self-dignity simply by doing its basic duties: examining the nation’s needs and problems and legislating reasonable responses. To succeed, Congress must have the courage to restore some of the tools that any institution needs to work effectively and solve problems.

The Bipartisan Policy Center’s Commission on Political Reform has studied these issues and proposed commonsense reforms. While skeptics may claim some of these are politically difficult, they should consider the “political difficulty” of continued dysfunction. Ultimately, there is one, and only one, way for Congress to regain public trust and support: Get Things Done.

Some of these reforms are easy and publicly noncontroversial. For instance, the House and Senate should schedule synchronized five-day workweeks in Washington, with three weeks in session followed by a one-week recess. Lawmakers spend far too much time in (and traveling to and from) their districts, and not enough time in Washington getting to know one another and mastering their key committees’ subject areas. It is inconceivable that we seek to govern our diverse and complex nation principally on Wednesdays. As unseemly as the mid-January shutdown was, senators said it forced meaningful private talks between Republicans and Democrats — something that should happen in advance of future crises.

Both chambers should continue the House’s recent practice of allowing committees to work every morning without the interruption of floor business and votes. Congressional committees are the engines of our democracy. Empowering them — and, by implication, reducing the power of leadership — would go a long way toward improving the legislative process. Substantive legislation should not reach the House or Senate floor without benefit of committee deliberations. Legislation with broad committee support should expect to receive floor consideration, and members should have a minimum of three days to study these bills. Finally, full-fledged conference committees should resolve differences between House and Senate versions of important legislation.

Other much-needed changes include:

Step away from the TV lights: The recent shutdown was solved in large part by the self-described Common Sense Coalition that met in Sen. Susan Collins’ office to hammer out an agreement. The most important difference between the senator’s office and the floor of the Senate is “no cameras.” Lawmakers must reassert the importance of negotiating in private and presenting their agreements and explanations to the nation.

Guarantee some deliberation: Last year, the Senate considered far too few committee bills on the floor with a robust amendment process.

Get the budget process back on track: Congress should adopt a biennial budget process that includes two-year budget resolutions and appropriations bills. To help with enforcement, it must consider enacting two-year ceilings on discretionary spending.

Article I and Article II of the Constitution should get together: The president should hold regular, monthly meetings with congressional leaders and be invited to attend joint congressional caucuses twice a year.

Modernize the institution: Lawmakers should convene a Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress. The last time Congress looked in the mirror was 1992. A lot has happened since, domestically and internationally. Congress is not designed for the modern era. It’s time for a serious bipartisan effort to modernize the institution.

Stop the one-party rule changes: Senate policy should call for changing its rules at the start of a new Congress. Rule changes would require a two-thirds vote in the chamber.

Reform and restore earmarks: Enabling Congress to direct up to 1 percent of the budget to address constituent priorities will strengthen its capacity to make hard decisions (e.g., reduce the $20 trillion deficit). It is possible to design a transparent and deliberative process deserving of public trust.

Congress’ shortcomings are painfully obvious, but they’re not unsolvable. It is time for our resilient democracy to stand up for itself and reclaim the tools it needs to solve tough problems.

Jason Grumet is founder and president of the Bipartisan Policy Center.

The Bipartisan Policy Center is a Washington, D.C.-based think tank that actively promotes bipartisanship. BPC works to address the key challenges facing the nation through policy solutions that are the product of informed deliberations by former elected and appointed officials, business and labor leaders, and academics and advocates from both ends of the political spectrum. BPC is currently focused on health, energy, national security, the economy, financial regulatory reform, housing, immigration, infrastructure, and governance. Website | Twitter | Facebook

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