Q. What does the Healthy Congress Index for the 115th Congress that just ended say about how it functioned compared with the previous one?
A. The top takeaway is that Congress is not as healthy as it had been recently, and below the recommendations made by the Bipartisan Policy Center. It is not functioning as it should in a number of ways — openness to debate, working days in Washington, and the budget process.
Q. Why do you think that is?
A. Let’s start with the openness to debate. If Congress really is going to function, it’s got to find a way for even rank-and-file members in both the majority and the minority parties to have some input. That means they need to be allowed to amend bills, to have debate on the floor, and to have committees working in a way that members from both parties are heard in the policy development process.
What we have tended to find over the years covered by the Index is that majority parties sometimes pledge more openness and robust debate but ultimately end up shutting the process down and running things in a much more heavy-handed way, especially in the House of Representatives. We’ve seen past Speakers promise an openness in Congress, and then fall away from that. There will always be a tension between wanting openness, but also wanting to move bills.
The 115th Congress really saw a lack of debate, especially in the House of Representatives — no open rules where any member can offer amendments, and mostly closed rules where no amendments are allowed at all. It was partly due to leaders not really stepping up and being able to say ‘while it may seem against our interests we’re really looking to have some fair procedure where there is a lot of input that the public can see’.
Q. Why is a fair process on Capitol Hill important for Americans outside of Washington?
A. If Americans are voting for a member of Congress, sending them to Washington to represent their interests, they want that person to get a chance to put their views into the mix. It doesn’t mean that they are always going to win or prevail, but it does mean that they are supposed to be there representing Americans across the country, and if it turns out that Congress is really just led by a few leaders and a broad set of voices aren’t heard, that means your vote for Congress is not really being reflected in the government.
Q. Will there be an impact on the next Healthy Congress Index from the fact that it is now divided government, when the last Congress had a one-party majority?
A. Time will tell. Obviously, it’s more difficult for Congress with one party in charge of one chamber and one party in charge of the other to get things done. But that shouldn’t be an excuse to fall back on a process more tightly controlled by congressional leadership. An open process with good committee work can make progress on multiple policy fronts.
You can have a fair process where you allow voices to be heard, see what can get through the House and the Senate, and then have that as the basis for crafting a compromise. Good process does not guarantee that there is some great compromise at the end of the rainbow, but it does offer the opportunity to reach a deal rather than be mired in gridlock.
Q. Was there any positive news in the Healthy Congress Index?
A. The last Congress actually did move a little quicker in trying to get the appropriation bills through the committee process even if what most people remember will be the protracted shutdown. Arguably the Senate spent more time in Washington to try and get those bills done. But then ultimately you also need to find a way to get through to final passage by reconciling the priorities between the House and Senate, and they failed in that respect with a number of the appropriation bills.
Q. What are the main ways to improve how Congress functions?
A. Congress should spend more time working in Washington, have healthy debate, and find a way to get its appropriation process done in a reasonable amount of time. You don’t get as good a product if you just let the leaders develop legislation with little input from the members. It’s even worse when the leaders need to craft compromises during crisis points.
Q. Do you see the current Congress working differently from the previous one?
A. We have new leadership in the House of Representatives. I think there’s a sense of wanting to do things differently. There has been bipartisan support for a newly created Select Committee for the Modernization of Congress to think about ways in which the House can work better. BPC is actively working to promote with the Select Committee recommendations we believe will lead to a more efficient Congress.
The worry is that in the past we have had new majorities come in, like Newt Gingrich and the Republicans taking over in the 1994 election, promising openness and following through for a while, but after some time that determination faded away and it returned to business as usual.
Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats came in as a new majority in the 110th Congress, promising more openness and trying for a while before that sentiment also faded away.
Paul Ryan, and John Boehner to some extent, said they believed in regular order, believed in a good process, but were unable to deliver in terms of allowing robust debate, partly because a majority wants to get things done. In the House, especially, a majority can mostly impose its will without bipartisan input. It’s incumbent on the leaders themselves to prioritize an inclusive process.
So we have seen it in the past, leaders have promised and sometimes followed through on some of these things for a while. This new majority, we’re going to watch them, we’re hopeful they will do things better, and we also hope that a better functioning legislative process develops rather than fades away as it has in the past.