It’ll Be Up to the New Congress to Rebuild It

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- What’s the best path for reviving Congress to its rightful place as the first branch of government? 

Tom Mann and Norm Ornstein pour a little cold water on what is, in fact, a fairly fringe movement to improve congressional capacity. Not that they don’t agree with the general idea, but for them, structural reforms are mostly irrelevant until a healthy party runs both chambers of Congress. For them, the overwhelmingly urgent problem is one of partisan asymmetry — or, to put it more bluntly, the problem of the dysfunctional Republican Party:

The demand for a Madisonian Congress is overwhelmed by the tribal forces dominating our politics today. Building capacity in Congress will have to wait until the incentives are in place to have an assertive and functional legislature. The first step must come this November by replacing the majority party in at least one chamber of Congress.

Mann and Ornstein don’t say that as partisans; they say that because they believe Republicans have demonstrated that they just aren’t interested in restoring a healthy Congress. Indeed, they are unable to do that in their current condition. The Newt Gingrich Republican Party specializes in tearing down institutions, not building them up. 

I agree with their main points.

However, I still think the drive for increased congressional capacity isn’t futile, and it shouldn’t be delayed. At least, the hard work of figuring out exactly how to build a working Madisonian Congress, capable of real governing, in an era of partisan polarization is urgent right now.

That’s because now is the time to provide well-intentioned Democrats, and even well-intentioned Republicans, with a useful agenda if they’re looking for one. And some are. A bipartisan House Problem Solvers Caucus is trying to put together rules changes to return influence to committees and individual members of the House. 

Unfortunately, it’s not at all clear that members of the House are actually capable right now of reforming the House. The exact same lack of institutional memory and expertise that prevents them from governing may keep them from coming up with good ideas. It doesn’t help that although some senior members have been around forever, most of them have relatively little experience. So they really don’t even know what the current House is missing. Which makes it hard to build a new, updated version of it.

For example, one proposal to force popular legislation to the House floor over the wishes of House leaders if it had a large enough number of co-sponsors was blasted by Congress experts and scholars on Twitter after it was unveiled on Wednesday. The intention, again, was good. But the consensus of experts was it was the wrong solution to not-quite-the-correct problem.

The problem of reform is a difficult one. We saw that in 2007 through 2010, when a Democratic majority did little to roll back the damage that Republicans had done to the House. It’s not that Democrats were opposed to a Congress capable of budgeting, legislating and performing proper oversight; in fact, I suspect they were in favor of it. But it wasn’t nearly as urgent a project for them as passing the Democratic agenda — and a chamber set up to streamline enactment of the preferences of the majority party was quite convenient for that goal. 

If a better Congress is going to happen, it’s going to take convincing an incoming Democratic majority that rebuilding Congress is in their medium- and long-term interest — something that may be true but might be hard to sell. And it’s going to take a good deal of advance planning and coalition building, just as policy entrepreneurs try to sell parties on specific plans during the campaign, not after they take office. 

2. Daniel S. Goldman, Barbara McQuade and Miriam Rocah on the Steele dossier and the Carter Page FISA application

3. The Washington Post’s Ann E. Marimow, Jonathan O’Connell and David A. Fahrenthold report on the emoluments court case against President Donald Trump moving forward. Don’t discount this one among Trump’s long list of scandals. 

4. Speaking of which: My Bloomberg Opinion colleague Timothy L. O’Brien on why Trump may be even more worried about that Michael Cohen taped conversation. 

5. Lisa Hagen looks at the upcoming August primary elections.

6. Jamelle Bouie on “stand your ground” laws.

7. And Martha Raddatz on Trump and the media.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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