There are a lot of reasons why Congress finds itself hamstrung in Washington and discounted by the people it serves at home. But in the end, the demons Congress has to fight are its own. If it is to return to relevance, effectiveness, and higher standing in public opinion, the paths it must follow start on and wind through Capitol Hill.
For starters, Congress has gotten into some terrible legislative habits. The worst is the omnibus bill, which is emblematic of the deeply rooted issues Congress faces. These bills are thousands of pages long and they bypass pretty much the entire legislative process.
Good process is not about efficiency. It’s about bolstering your chances of getting things right. And that means handing authority back to individual members and to the committees so that what comes out of Congress can benefit from the creativity and insights of a wide range of talented politicians.
This step, however, requires another: Congress has to spend more time legislating. Its members work very hard, but not at legislating. Yet if the political and legislative process is a search for remedies to our nation’s problems, then it needs care and attention. Building expertise and finding consensus — even within one’s own party — takes patience, skill, perseverance…and a lot of time.
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And honestly, if members of Congress can’t make the time to re-energize the practice of negotiation and compromise, then what hope is there? The definition of being a responsible lawmaker is to deal with divisions and to move the country forward anyway. Otherwise, each side just sits in its corner and maneuvers to beat the other at the next election and we, as a nation, spin in circles.
Finally, Congress needs to spend far more of its energy looking over the executive branch. The current hearings on the Mueller report highlight what’s been lacking: this kind of attention should be paid to every nook and cranny of government.
The point of all this is that without a functional Congress, we don’t have a functional representative democracy. I don’t expect all these things I’ve mentioned to be resolved easily or quickly. But I want to see Congress again become an institution we can be confident is playing a constructive role in our democracy. And until it gets its house in order, I don’t see how that will happen.