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The Sausage Factory

A Joint Committee to Reform Congress Can Happen Sooner Than You Think

You will get very little push back by declaring that Congress needs serious reform. We’ve been talking about reform for many years now, but little more than minor tinkering with rules has been done. Well finally, a resolution to abandon the dysfunctional status quo and create the means to enact genuine reform is being introduced. U.S. Reps. Darin LaHood (R-IL18) and Dan Lipinski (D-IL3) plan to introduce a resolution to create a Joint Committee on Congressional Reform that will be a launching pad for institutional reforms to make Congress effective, vital and relevant.

While the 114th has shown some improvement, the last two Congresses (112th and 113th) were the least productive in modern history. Not surprisingly, an August 2015 Gallup Poll reported that 82 percent of the public disapprove of Congress’ performance. Only 14 percent approve. If the institution is to recover its vitality and esteem, it must change significantly, and to do so, it should create a bipartisan joint committee on congressional reform with the authority to propose revisions to the rules, procedures, and structures of Congress. Research commissioned by the Congressional Institute shows that less than 1 in 5 voters believes their voice is being heard.

The idea of creating a bipartisan joint committee on congressional reform is not new. In the past, when Members recognized the need for reform, they sometimes turned to such committees. Two important pieces of reform legislation, the Legislative Reorganization Acts of 1946 and 1970, came from joint committees. These acts reshaped crucial aspects of the legislative process, like the committee system, staffing, and Floor procedures. They promoted qualities that virtually all Members and constituents value, like efficiency, openness and transparency. In other words, past reform committees were crucial in the development of Congress.

You can argue that although Congress has had reform committees in the past, a new one is pointless. The Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction (the “Supercommittee”) failed miserably, so why should we expect anything different? However, with reform committees, even when Congress has not immediately enacted legislation based on their suggestions, lawmakers have often adopted their ideas later. For instance, once the last Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress published its final report in December 1993, Congress did not pass any laws based on their recommendations. However, when the Republicans took the House in 1995, they adopted some of the committee’s suggestions, such as explicitly recognizing the minority party’s right to offer a motion to recommit with instructions. According to the Congressional Research Service, “While few of the recommendations of the JCOC were adopted at the time, its list of suggested reforms reads like a description of the structure and working of the contemporary House of Representatives.” There are plenty of ideas from reform committees that resurfaced later. Even if Congress does not immediately adopt legislation from a new joint committee, it might only be a delayed victory, not a defeat.

Obviously, no one wants to see long delays in badly needed reforms. That is all the more reason for Congress to create a joint reform committee now. Given the upheaval this past year, there is no better time for the Members to reorient themselves and consider changes that would improve Congress. Congress creates committees like this every few decades, so a joint committee on reform is due. The last time we saw a panel like this was in the early 1990s, meaning it has been over two decades since the last one. According to our calculations, only 54 Members of the House and 16 Senators were in Congress (in either Chamber) when the last JCOC issued its final report. By creating a new joint committee on reform now, Congress can create a link with the last effort before it loses its institutional memory of the last JCOC entirely.

Hopefully veteran Members of Congress can provide crucial insights into how to reform the institution, but they are not the only sources for ideas. Those inside and outside Congress have already suggested dozens of serious reform proposals. The Congressional Institute has compiled some of the most significant ones for Congress to start with. We’re not suggesting that a joint committee on reform should start with a pre-determined set of reforms. Rather, it should encourage vigorous bipartisan cooperation to come up with proposals that would improve the broken budget process, restore regular order on the Floor so that all Members can legislate, and start to devolve power from the party leadership and back towards the committees where Members have a real opportunity to participate in crafting a bill.

Reform of Congress is not a partisan issue – rather it is an issue of whether Congress will restore its Article I role in the Federal Government. Every year of congressional gridlock means more power shifts from the Legislature to the Executive. And this is true whether the Democrats or the Republicans control the Congress and whether a Democrat or Republican is President. The issue is whether Congress will hold itself and the Executive branch accountable, or continue to allow the role of the Legislature in our Federal system to erode. The stakes are that high.

If Congress creates a joint committee on reform now, it will have created a rare opportunity for itself. It will be known as one of the few Congresses that dedicated itself to institutional reform. Given the way things are going, it has little to lose and much to gain. It might even create the Congress America needs—and deserves.

For more information on how a new Joint Committee on congressional reform could be structured, its powers, and responsibilities, go here.

For a history of joint committees on congressional reform, go here.

Mark Strand is the President of the Congressional Institute. The Sausage Factory blog is a Congressional Institute project dedicated to explaining parliamentary procedure, Congressional politics, and other issues pertaining to the legislative branch.

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