Congress has gridlocked and “ruled” itself into irrelevance

House Of Representatives Allows Media Rare View Of House Chamber

Sometimes you hear that many politicians vote for a bill in various forms before they vote against it, or vice versa.  The conflict, negotiation, and eventual compromise involved in this process form the essence of the democratic process.

Jared Polis, House of Representatives, Colorado (D)

Our government is all about balance.  Power was intended to be balanced between the three branches of government:  the Executive branch carries out the laws, the Judicial branch interprets the law, and the Legislative branch makes the law.[1]

In the legislative branch, Congress should be balanced in representation.  The balance in power in the Senate is equal with two representatives for each state.[2]   In the House of Representatives, representation is balanced in terms of population, with the number of representatives dependent upon the population of that state.[3]

This balance assumes that each representative will fully participate in the legislative process.  But recently, many have been shut out of the process.

To understand how that is happening, we have to first understand how the legislative process works.  After a bill or joint resolution is introduced, it is referred to the appropriate committee(s).[4]  Hearings may be held, and committee members may amend and vote on the final version to be sent to the floor.[5]  In the House of Representatives, members can then debate bills and offer amendments according to the rules set for that bill.[6]  In the Senate, there is no limit on debate or amendments in unless a supermajority (3/5 of senators) votes to impose limits.[7]

But debate is being shut down.  Recently, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) refused to permit debate on a bill because it could become “a two-week ordeal.”[8]  What is more, Senate leaders have limited votes on amendments.[9]  Under McConnell, such votes have declined from 67% in 2005 to less than 20%.[10]

Likewise, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R) has permitted only amendments from the committee and none from rank-and-file members – more than any other Speaker.[11]  And he has shut down debate more than former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) did 20 years ago.[12]  In the first eight months of 2018, the House Rules Committee issued a record number of “closed rules,” which permit no amendments and little debate, for more than half of the legislation considered.[13]  The remaining rules it issued were “structural,” meaning that only amendments approved by the Rules Committee could be considered.[14]  In short, no legislation this year was considered under an “open rule” that permits amendments from the floor.  This is in marked contrast to the prevalence of open rules over 40 years ago.[15]

And it is house leadership (the Majority and Minority leaders) who determine what members will serve on the Rules Committee and dictate the rules under which legislation will be considered.[16]  Representative Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) called the Rules Committee “the place where democracy goes to die.[17]

In short, members of each house may vote on a final version of a bill but often have no input into its creation.  That is leaving the bulk of the decisions in the legislative process to some powerful members of Congress while shutting out members from other states.  Without the ability to offer amendments, “members can’t fully represent their constituents.”[18]  That is unequal representation, a violation of our Constitution.

Not only has it upset the balance in Congress, it has upset the balance between the branches of government.  Because these actions have shortened or eliminated discussion between the parties, polarization and gridlock are now the norm.[19]  So little gets done.[20]

As a result, according to a study by The Washington Post and ProPublica, Congress “functions more as a junior partner to the executive, or doesn’t function at all when it comes to the country’s pressing priorities.”[21]  In other words, Congress has gridlocked itself into irrelevance.

Some current and former members would agree with that statement.  Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse has said that Congress is “impotent” and “weak.”[22]  Thomas Coburn, the former Oklahoma senator that left in 2014, said, “That’s why I left. You couldn’t do anything anymore.”[23]

But that’s not all.  Not only are some members getting shut out but Congress as a whole is taking shortcuts.  They meet only two days a week when they’re in session.[24]  Committees also meet less often:  House committee meetings have dropped in frequency 43% while Senate committees have met 63% less often.[25]

And when called on to vote on a bill, members of Congress often haven’t had sufficient time to read it.[26]  House Republicans pledged in 2010 to “ensure that bills are debated and discussed in the public square by publishing the text online for at least three days before coming up for a vote in the House of Representatives.”[27]  But that pledge has been broken several times over the past three years.[28]   To address the timeliness of bill publication before voting, Virginia representative Tom Garrett has introduced a bill called Read Every Act Diligently in Total (READ IT).[29]  This bill requires that legislation in any form must be publicly available online for twice the number of minutes as pages.[30]  It was introduced and referred to the Rules Committee on March 22, 2018.[31]  No action has been taken on it in the eight months since.

But there is hope.  A move is afoot to change the rules for the new 116th Congress to be seated in January 2019.[32]  A bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus has proposed rules that will permit amendments – even under structured rules — and permit closed rules only with the approval of 60% of the members.[33]  At bottom, many of the proposed changes address the concerns noted here, transferring authority from the leaders to the rank-and-file members and permitting them to fully participate in the legislative process – as their constituents no doubt intended when they voted for them.

The House will vote on a new rules package the first day of the session in January.[34]  Let your representative know how you feel and what you expect from them.  Otherwise, you may find yourself at the mercy of decisions made by members of Congress who do not represent you.

[1] USA.gov, Branches of the U.S. Government, https://www.usa.gov/branches-of-government.

[2] U.S. Constitution, Article I, https://www.law.cornell.edu/constitution/articlei.

[3] Id.

[4] Congress.gov, The Legislative Process, https://www.congress.gov/legislative-process.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Paul Kane and Derek Willis, Law and Disorder, The Washington Post, November 5, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2018/politics/laws-and-disorder/?utm_term=.f807193e2dd2.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Thomas Spulak and George Crawford, How to fix Congress in one step, Politico, September 19, 2018, https://www.politico.com/agenda/story/2018/09/19/house-rules-committee-congress-000699.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] Casey Burgat, The House asked members for their ideas to make Congress work better.  This is what they suggested, Brookings, September 21, 2018, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/fixgov/2018/09/21/the-house-asked-members-for-their-ideas-to-make-congress-work-better-this-is-what-they-suggested/.

[18] Id.

[19] Paul Kane and Derek Willis, Law and Disorder, The Washington Post, November 5, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2018/politics/laws-and-disorder/?utm_term=.f807193e2dd2.

[20] See my blog post, Americans want progress, not gridlock, in Washington.

[21] Paul Kane and Derek Willis, Law and Disorder, The Washington Post, November 5, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2018/politics/laws-and-disorder/?utm_term=.f807193e2dd2.

[22] Id.

[23] Id.

[24] Id.

[25] Id.

[26] GovTrack Insider, Members literally don’t have enough time to read some bills before a vote is held. This change would require they do, March 29, 2018, https://govtrackinsider.com/members-literally-dont-have-enough-time-to-read-some-bills-before-a-vote-is-held-e8691c86c91d.

[27] Steny Hoyer, A Three-Day Rule Refresher for House Republican Leaders, Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer

[28] Id.

[29] Id.

[30] Id.

[31] Congress.gov, H. Res. 801 – READ IT Resolution, https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/house-resolution/801.

[32] Lindsey McPherson, Too Soon for Rules Talk, Roll Call, September 11, 2018, https://www.rollcall.com/news/politics/house-members-uneasy-rules-discussion-ahead-midterm-decision.

[33] Id.

[34] Id.

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