There have been encouraging signs that the Republican leadership on Capitol Hill wants to make Congress function again. They’ve talked about a series of changes to make the process more open for rank-and-file members, and insist they want to restore a healthy legislative process.
This is heartening, but how can we tell if Congress is actually fixing itself? Here’s what you should keep your eye on:
First, differences in emphasis separate the leaders of the two houses, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan. Ryan wants a bold Republican legislative agenda; McConnell seems to be focused on maintaining his Senate majority, which makes boldness a risk. This difference could lead to slim production.
The second big indicator is whether Congress has the political will to fix itself. Most members say publicly that they are dedicated to making the institution function smoothly. The key measure of whether they really mean it is the attitude they take toward their political adversaries. If what you hear on Capitol Hill is nothing but distrust, then they’re not serious. If they’re willing to negotiate and compromise with one another, then there’s hope.
Third is what you might think of as the rolled-up-sleeves test. How hard are members of Congress willing to work at addressing the key issues facing the country? So far, the evidence is disappointing. The legislative schedule put out by the congressional leadership is, to be blunt, lax. You cannot run a government that is not in session. The best we can hope for is an obvious sense of urgency when members of Congress are in Washington. Look for it. If you don’t see it, little will get done on Capitol Hill.
Not all the responsibility for restoring Congress rests at the federal level. The states, too, have a key role to play. Will they get serious about how they draw congressional districts, so that politicians no longer have the luxury of picking their voters rather than the other way around? Will some states continue to pursue efforts to make voting harder — which, like gerrymandering, has the effect of shoring up the extremes in Congress?
In the end, good intentions and fine rhetoric don’t accomplish much. I hope you’ll keep an eye on Congress and cheer for its members to act in accord with their own advice. If they do, Congress will take a giant stride toward improved performance.
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.