Congress: When Success Is Still Failure


The movement to reform the U.S. Congress is like a G-rated flick that would make Walt Disney yawn. There’s no sex, no violence, no scandal, no crime, comparatively little political intrigue, and no big-time stars, just a lot of risqué talk about filibustering the motion to proceed.

It is doubtful the subject will come up in campaigns, either, beyond the patronizing and often hypocritical blather about running against Washington.

Several weeks ago the House Rules Committee held a hearing on about 40 reforms that members wanted to see brought up on the opening day of the next Congress in January 2019. The attention to it was, as you would expect, silence.

There wasn’t any news coverage, except from Paul Krawzak at Congressional Quarterly, who understands the subject matter.

The need for reform couldn’t be clearer, or more critical, or more timely.

Congress is the first branch of the government; it is also the most broken branch. It suffers from the maladies afflicting other institutions of government and politics; the anger, the ideological rigidity, greed, power, the lack of visionary leadership and, of course, incessant, destructive and extreme partisanship, all day, all night, all year.

Beyond that, though, there are chronic deficiencies in how the House and Senate actually function at their core where the work is supposed to get done, but doesn’t.

The urgency for reform rests in the real possibility that a barely functioning Legislative Branch of government will soon become the new normal and major change will no longer be possible. The ramifications could be stark, from relinquishing too much power to the Executive Branch to being no longer able to meet critical needs such as cyber security, transportation infrastructure, healthcare, and education, or resolve the impending crisis in the burgeoning national debt or the bankruptcy of Social Security.

The prospect of a new normal was apparent last month when Congress completed action on five out of 12 appropriation bills that fund Federal government programs and agencies each year and temporarily extended the remaining seven for two months avoiding another government shutdown. According to the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) the 2013 closure cost taxpayers $2 billion.

This is the first time in 22 years that Congress has gotten this many appropriation bills through the gauntlet of subcommittees, committees, House and Senate, and conferences that resolve differences between the two bodies.

The last time all 12 appropriations made it through the Congress individually, my youngest daughter was five. She’s getting married this month. Love you, Kate.

The milestone is a cause for celebration, but it shouldn’t be. That’s the problem. The bar for Congressional productivity is so low my grandson, Miles, could jump it. He’s seven.

One reason the appropriations spurt is viewed positively is because it represented a step toward the return of regular order in the legislative process, where the rules are followed, the members have more to say, and politicians treat each other with a little more civility, cooperate more, and, hold your nose, compromise.

“Today marks a victory in the return for regular order,” declared appropriator Tom Cole, R-OK, on the day of passage.

Returning to regular order would take the 45 year-old budget process off life support for a while. Lately, it has been gasping for air.

Broken Budget Process

For several decades the Budget process survived, but out of the last 10 years, as BPC’s Bill Hoagland testified recently, “Congress has failed to adopt what I consider to be a real conference report on a budget resolution seven times. Budgets have been adopted on time only eight times in 45 years.

The broken budget process has caused the regular appropriations process to suffer a similar, corresponding fate. Jim Dyer, former House appropriations staff director, cites three major problems:

  1. Budget caps on spending that have become impossible to meet;
  2. Sequestration, a mandatory meat-axe approach to budget cuts, re-imposed in the FY 2013 budget because a House-Senate “super-committee” could not reach agreement on reforms; and
  3. The practice of attaching policy language to spending bills that make changes in policy. It’s called legislating on appropriations, a way to skirt authorizing committees that are supposed to conduct oversight of federal agencies but don’t get it done.

There are an estimated $300 billion in federal programs and agencies that are due or overdue for reauthorization. The Department of Homeland Security has never been properly reauthorized, and the Justice Department has been lagging for 14 years.

It is no wonder that people don’t trust their government, and have little faith in those sent to Washington to govern. Most citizens don’t fully grasp how the government is supposed to work—few do—but they know when it doesn’t work, and that stirs the demand for change, change that sometimes is a cure worse than the disease.

Philosophers have pointed out for centuries that a Republic cannot survive without public trust. Citizens eventually turn to autocracy.

Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress

Some reformers pin their hopes on a return to regular order. But that is no longer enough. My former colleague Bill Pitts, an expert on procedure, says it is time for a new order that recognizes 21st century era technology, new forms of communication, and dynamic changes in political behavior that put the accumulation of power and self-survival over governance.

Hoagland, Dyer, Pitts and I are among former Members and staff who have been advocating bipartisan, bicameral congressional reform for years. This year, Congressman Darin LaHood, R-IL and Dan Lipinski, D-IL, and a bipartisan group of 67 Members cosponsored a resolution creating the Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress to take up major reforms.

LaHood and Lipinski recently urged the House Rules Committee to provide for a vote on a Joint Committee in the rules package that will come before the new Congress next January.

There is a mini version of what we proposed in existence today, thanks in part to Speaker Paul Ryan, charged with reviewing budget and appropriations reforms. It has 16 members, House and Senate, Republican and Democratic, mostly members of their respective budget and appropriations committees. It’s a start.

Comprehensive reform takes time. As Pitts reminded me, the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970 was the conclusion of five years of work by a Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress.

Restoring Checks and Balances

Congress is a continuing body thanks to the wisdom of the founding Fathers, and the reform movement should extend beyond one Congress. The Joint Committee would provide a unique role, serving as a bipartisan, bicameral, publicly accountable facilitator of new and good ideas on how to restore the Legislative Branch to its true constitutional stature and character.

A lot of people are angry with the Executive Branch, but the best way to combat that condition is to strengthen the Legislative Branch, which can be and should be the best check on the other two branches and the best way to balance the power shared among them.

On this issue, it doesn’t matter what party is in control of the legislature. This isn’t a partisan question. It is a bipartisan problem that demands a bipartisan, bicameral solution from adults who are committed to a cause greater than their own.

Congress is broken and running away from that reality is a losing race. The running has to stop. The reforms, from simple repairs to major renovations; from changes in behavior to giving citizens a louder voice, need to be made and the Constitution puts that job right in the lap of the Members.

The unglamorous and unrewarding mission of reforming Congress is far more important to the country and more relevant to people’s lives than most of what shows up on the evening news or in the morning paper. Maybe when, not if, a new joint committee is created it would help if the leaders gave it a PG-13 rating and served free popcorn.

Editor’s Note: Mike Johnson is a former journalist, who worked on the Ford White House staff and served as press secretary and chief of staff to House Republican Leader Bob Michel, prior to entering the private sector. He is co-author of a book, Surviving Congress, a guide for congressional staff, co-founder and member of the Board of the Congressional Institute, and a participant in the Congress of Tomorrow congressional reform project. Johnson is retired. He is married to Thalia Assuras and has five children and three grandchildren.