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How to Modernize Congress: Perspectives from Three Freshman Congresswomen

The Bipartisan Policy Center recently hosted a conversation among three freshman Congresswomen—Reps. Chrissy Houlahan (D-PA), Elissa Slotkin (D-MI), and Abigail Spanberger (D-VA)— as part of the Bob and Elizabeth Dole Series on Leadership.

The members discussed ways to make the legislative branch more effective, responsive, and modern to better serve the American people. Here are three reforms they believe will improve the House of Representatives:

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1. Houlahan: Eliminate scheduling conflicts by implementing blocked schedules.

Members of Congress often serve on multiple committees, and those committees frequently schedule hearings during the same windows of time. That means that members are expected to be in two places at once. Houlahan, who serves on three committees, knows this quandary well. She noted that concurrently scheduled hearings require members to only ask their “five minutes of questions” before moving onto their next task, often resulting in sparsely attended hearings.

Overlapping time commitments not only make scheduling difficult; they prevent members from learning more deeply about complex policy issues from expert witnesses in hearings and from engaging with one another. Members must also be available to meet with constituents or administration officials, and they spend time fundraising for re-election.

Houlahan proposed that Congress adopt block schedules modeled after K-12 schools. Certain days and times would be allocated for hearings, votes, and constituent meetings, allowing lawmakers to better manage their limited time and learn the issues. A better-informed Congress can better serve the American people.

2. Slotkin: Reduce legislative stagnation by utilizing the consensus calendar.

Slotkin endorsed greater use of the consensus calendar, a new rule adopted by the Democratic majority in 2019. It requires that a bill with 290 co-sponsors be brought to the House floor after being added to the calendar, regardless of where it is in the committee process. “That, to me, is the single most important accomplishment because the committee structure is political and on its own schedule. This forces it if you do the work to whip votes,” Slotkin said.

The rule change created an avenue for stalled bipartisan legislation with widespread support to move, offering relief from partisan gridlock. Once a bill has 290 co-sponsors for 25 legislative days, it is added to the consensus calendar if the relevant committee fails to report it in that timeframe. The House must then consider one consensus calendar bill per week. Five bills have been added to the Consensus Calendar thus far in the 116th Congress.

One risk is that this mechanism can be used to circumvent the traditional committee process, which is an important one. Committees are the engines of the legislative bodies. Ideally, they are responsible for conducting most of the deliberative work of Congress through hearings, oversight, staff background reports, bill drafting, committee markups, and final report writing. Committees are also one of the few opportunities for rank-and-file members, particularly in the minority party, to influence legislation. The Bipartisan Policy Center recommends that important legislation have the benefit of this regular order process.

3. Spanberger: Decrease attack ads by eliminating Motions to Recommit

Members of Congress have one final opportunity to impact legislation before a bill receives a final vote.  A procedural mechanism—called the motion to recommit—allows the minority party to amend a bill on the floor or send it back to committee. Although an important tool for the minority, it can be quite divisive.

Spanberger described the motion to recommit as “the weapon of the minority party,” because it often includes controversial amendments, forcing the majority party to take a difficult vote, on record, that can later be used as material for attack ads. The majority tends to see these efforts as the minority trying to score political points instead of engaging in the legislative process in good faith.  The minority, however, views motions to recommit as an essential tool to amend important legislation. Both parties have weaponized motions to recommit during their time in the minority, and both have moved to limit the minority’s ability to amend legislation during their time in the majority.

Spanberger argued that Congress would work better without motions to recommit. “Wouldn’t it be a beautiful thing if you were actually sitting there, almost all members of Congress, watching them debate the bill you’re actually going to vote on, as opposed to this concocted version of something that is later going to be used to attack,” Spanberger mused.

Because both parties have used them in this way while in the minority, Spanberger recommended sunsetting out motions to recommit by 2025. That way, neither party will know whether they will be in the majority by that time and might thus be more willing to eliminate these motions.

There may be another way to reduce the pressure on the motion to recommit: allow more amendments on the floor. Both parties while in the majority have increasingly brought legislation to the floor without allowing any amendments to be considered. As a result, the motion to recommit has become the only outlet for the minority’s viewpoint in many circumstances. If more amendments were allowed, the minority – be it Democrats or Republicans – would have more incentive to offer amendments that, in good faith, are meant to improve the bill.