Broken Branch of Government Is Legislative


Last week was an important one in the House of Representatives. No, it wasn’t because of impeachment hearings.

While former Ukrainian Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch was putting in a command performance in the Longworth Building, across the street in the Capitol the House of Representatives was voting to extend the life of its Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress.

I know what you’re thinking. In a desperate attempt to focus your attention on mundane news about the Modernization Committee I used a well-worn attention grabber to focus your attention on modernizing Congress.

Now the challenge is to keep your attention.

How about this?

I just learned that a new Hallmark Christmas movie premiering soon will be rated R. More later, but first…

The select committee was created earlier this year to make recommendations on reforming the way Congress conducts its business, primarily on outdated and discredited rules and procedures that are to dictate how policy is made and laws passed. The need for the Select Committee was underscored by the fact that its extension was slipped into an Export Import Bank reauthorization bill it had nothing to do with.

The extension is a little feather in the cap of Speaker Nancy Pelosi who has insisted for months that the House would continue to conduct the people’s business while the Majority investigates and impeaches President Donald Trump. There is little evidence of Congress dealing with the national agenda.

The critical need for procedural stability in Congress has been borne out by the impeachment process itself which is not being conducted under traditional legislative rules and procedures that would ensure a fair and dignified process worthy of its once-historical importance.

It is unfortunate that when critics of the process raised concerns about rules and procedures, they were summarily dismissed by the Majority and the media. The critics had a valid point, several of them actually, and in the conduct of something as historical and momentous as impeachment they should have been addressed.

It is precisely one of the reasons Congress has become a dysfunctional, weak, and brittle branch of government.

The disregard, sometimes abandonment and autocratic partisan abuse of rules and procedures, precedents, and parliamentary discipline have broken the institution.

Concern for this erosion of the legislative process and the inability of Congress to perform even basic functions such as adoption of a budget and passage of spending bills has been building for years.

I was a member of a bipartisan group of about 30 former Members and staff that began discussions about the problems nearly a decade ago. We eventually produced a series of 40 reform ideas covering the legislative process, public education, and political behavior.

We dealt with the failure of the budget process, the failure of Congress to reauthorize federal programs on time, $300 billion of them, including Homeland Security, and we suggested ways for Members to meet and work together.

When we got nowhere pushing reforms, the solution seemed clear. We created a blueprint for a joint House Senate bipartisan committee on the organization of Congress patterned after successful efforts in 1994, 1974, and 1947.

Two Illinois Congressmen, Republican Darin LaHood and Democrat Dan Lipinski, introduced the first resolution creating the joint committee with 70 Republican and Democratic cosponsors.

That was almost five years ago.

Now, dozens of respectable and well-funded organizations—Congressional Institute, Bipartisan Policy Center, Congressional Management Foundation, R Street, Focus one, Civil Discourse Institute, Democracy Fund—all with literally hundreds of good ideas on how to reform Congress, are moving the process forward.

The modernization committee is the result of those efforts.

Unfortunately, the Committee is severely limited in its scope, but important nonetheless.

Columnist David Hawkings wrote last week “the idea is that it’s essential for Congress to get back some of the capacity, stature, and muscle ceded in recent decades to the president and the courts—and thereby recalibrate the balance of powers at the heart of a thriving federal republic.”

There are three good reasons the Modernization Committee deserves more time to work.

  1. First, its membership is equally divided between Democrats and Republicans and its work is truly bipartisan and producing bipartisan results.
  2. Second, it is addressing weaknesses in how the legislature operates that get ignored and shunted aside because while critical to making Congress work, dealing with them is of little political benefit to Members. Unfortunately, for decades upon decades, the American people have been conditioned to pooh-pooh procedure, as process not substance. But procedures are substance.
  3. Third, the Committee’s work is a stepping stone to Congress facing up to more difficult challenges of dysfunction, public disillusionment, and distrust. Hopefully, it will lead to joint reform with the Senate, whose relationship with the House is yet another impediment to Congress getting anything done.

More on that steamy movie just ahead.

Anyone intimately involved in public policy and the legislative process can tell their stories about how rules and procedure changed the course of public policy and politics, legendary stories of major legislation getting derailed in committee or on the Floor of the House or Senate because the advocates didn’t understand the rules of debate or were out maneuvered by adversaries with greater procedural leverage. They date back to the First Congress and every Congress since.

One example that Jerry Climer and I highlight in a forthcoming book on Congress, occurred in 1820. The young House Speaker Henry Clay had used his parliamentary and political prowess to win passage of landmark legislation admitting Maine and Missouri to the Union.

The Missouri Compromise was at the epicenter of the slavery debate. Clay considered the legislation the only guardrail standing between the country and civil war. After the bill passed, the crotchety Rep. John Randolph of Virginia would not relent in his opposition. He moved that the bill be reconsidered. Clay refused Randolph’s request on the procedural grounds that reconsideration could not take place until the House finished a number of petitions and committee reports.

“Occasionally, Randolph piped up to repeat his motion, and each time ruled out of order. Finally, with all old business completed, Randolph offered his motion, but Clay announced that because the clerk of the House had already taken the Missouri bill to the Senate, it could not be reconsidered. Randolph was dumbfounded. He blurted that the clerk had violated a member’s prerogative to ask for reconsideration, but his motion of protest was defeated too. Randolph sat fuming. Clay had done it to him again.” — From Henry Clay by David W. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler, Page 148

The need for procedural reform extends beyond congressional operations into our political processes and more importantly into the disintegration of political behavior. It is imperative that congressional leaders face the fact that a dysfunctional Congress is the price you pay when Members and staff can’t speak civilly to one another let alone work together in the same committee room, at least in public.

Bad behavior destroys public trust and the loss of public trust destroys the ability and willingness to govern.

Listen to the political debates, look at the political advertising, watch the flow of billions of dollars in and out of negative, nasty campaigns (estimates in this campaign cycle are $10 billion). There’s bound to be trouble and we know where that leaves us.

Columnist Gerald Seib, writing recently in the Wall Street Journal, predicted that “members of Congress and President Trump will congratulate one another this month if they simply manage to pass, belatedly, a stopgap funding measure that prevents the federal government from shutting down on Nov. 21. That now passes for an achievement in Washington.”

Seib quoted former Congressman, White House Chief of staff Raum Emanuel when he left Washington to become Mayor of Chicago, “something was deeply broken in our federal government. It was dysfunctional and only getting worse with each ensuing year.”

Emanuel was right. The problems are chronic. They are eating away at our system of government and slowly disenfranchising the electorate. They are bipartisan problems that require bipartisan solutions. The House and Senate face a gargantuan pile-up of overdue bills and resolutions that have been back-logged and log jammed and tucked away in file cabinets and desk drawers, some for years, at the hands of both Democratic and Republican majorities.

The pile up includes critical matters such as the North American trade deal; basic funding for the Federal Government; national infrastructure, desperately needed immigration reform; changes in education quality, equality, and opportunity; health care delivery, especially expenses drug costs, and a whole lot more.

Where do you begin to bring about change? The way forward may be going back to some basics, found in simply reforming procedures. The Select Committee has come up with nearly 30 recommendations already, a drop in the bucket, but now hopefully we can look forward to more.

Note: Boy, the older I get the more I forget. I know I was going to write about something else, but it escapes me now. Maybe next time.

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.