A lot of ink is being spilled about the speakership drama in the U.S. House and the turmoil besetting the Republicans who run Capitol Hill. There is a pervasive sense in Washington that Congress has gone, at least temporarily, off the rails.
All this attention on the crises of the moment suggests that resolving them will fix Congress. It won’t. Three deep-seated issues must be addressed before Congress can return to a constructive role.
The first is that Congress should work its will by letting members vote on the major issues of the day. In legislatures, whoever controls procedure usually controls results. In Congress, leaders — and sometimes followers — in both parties for years have manipulated the process to avoid tough decisions or skew results. Giving members of the House and the Senate a fair shot at addressing the nation’s challenges would deal Congress back into the policy-making arena.
Second, Congress has developed several bad habits that it needs to fix. These include huge bills that become vehicles for special-interest provisions and leadership wish-lists; bypassing the committee process; concentrating power in the leaders; curbing the participation of most members; and limiting debates and amendments.
The most pernicious of these is the practice of legislating by omnibus bills. These consist of hundreds of provisions, usually drafted in the dead of night by leadership staff — not members of Congress — and brought to the floor with scant time for anyone to read them, limited time for debate, and few amendments allowed. A lot of members have never known anything different.
There’s another way, and it brings me to my third point. We have over 200 years of experience on Capitol Hill that have taught us how to run a legislature so that the voice of the people can be better heard, multiple viewpoints get considered, and ordinary legislators get a fair shot at influencing the results. It’s called the “regular order,” and it gives members a fair crack at crafting policy for the nation.
The American people want Congress to work. They don’t expect a solution to everything, and they certainly don’t expect miracles. But they do expect a Congress that tries to make progress and that’s capable of developing creative approaches to the major problems of the day. The frustration for me is that we know how to do things better with a time-tested process, but members of Congress simply ignore it.
Lee Hamilton is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University; Distinguished Scholar, IU School of Global and International Studies; and Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years