As paralyzing gridlock continues to plague Washington, several members of Congress are banding together to push for reforms. Last month, 36 representatives from the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus put forward a number of congressional rules reforms to ease gridlock and “make the House work again for the American People.”
This is certainly not the first time that members of Congress have pushed for rule changes. What sets this effort apart is the opportunity for leverage. With the 2018 midterms around the corner and control of the chamber up in the air, representatives from both parties could pledge to withhold their support from the prospective Speaker unless they agree to implement the package of reforms. In fact, such a move is not without precedent.
In 1923, a breakaway group of progressive Republicans succeeded in pushing through congressional reforms by using the speakership vote as a bargaining chip. This time around, lawmakers from both parties are tired of a dysfunctional and hyperpartisan status quo and could join together to do the same.
Many of their proposals mirror recommendations made by the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Commission on Political Reform in its 2014 report, Governing in a Polarized America.
Both groups recognize that members aren’t meeting with their colleagues on the other end of the aisle enough—and therefore aren’t building the personal relationships that are necessary to work together. The Problem Solvers Caucus recommends holding a bipartisan annual joint meeting of Congress at the beginning of each term. This provides an opportunity for the whole congress to meet face-to-face and find potential areas for bipartisan cooperation.
The caucus has the right idea. But why stop at one meeting a session? BPC’s commission recommends monthly meetings of joint party caucuses to discuss potential areas for legislative cooperation. It also recommends that chamber leadership plan regular informal gatherings of members to allow for more relationship-building across parties. And the president should attend joint congressional caucuses on a regular basis.
Across-the-aisle personal time is essential for building trust, reducing a toxic environment, and finding areas of common agreement. As the commission put it, “it becomes harder to demonize people with whom you maintain personal and working relationships.”
Another series of reforms focus around debate rules. More and more commonly, bills are arriving on the floor of the House allowing only a handful of pre-approved amendments (a so-called “structured rule”) or no amendments at all (a “closed rule”). According to data from BPC’s Healthy Congress Index, back in the 104th Congress only 26 percent of bills had structured rules and only 14 percent had closed rules. Sixty percent were completely open to debate and amendments.
Nowadays, debate is much more limited on the House floor. Forty-five percent of all bills that have come to the floor this Congress have had structured rules, while 55 percent have had closed rules. This means not a single bill has arrived on the House floor with an open debate process.
The Problem Solvers Caucus recognizes how detrimental shutting minority opinion out of deliberation is to the deliberative branch of government. They propose requiring a three-fifths supermajority for passage and consideration of legislation under closed rules, in effect requiring debate for contentious bills. BPC’s commission also recommends more modified open rules be used for debate and urges committee chairs to pay special attention to minority members’ suggested changes before a bill is marked up and brought to the floor.
Both groups think members of Congress and the public deserve the chance to read and discuss legislation before it receives congressional action. The caucus recommends requiring bills to be posted at least three days before notice of a committee markup, while BPC’s commission calls for posting bills three days in advance of a floor vote. Rushing major legislation through Congress is just as antithetical to deliberative democracy as shutting out minority opinion. Both practices should be stopped.
The members of the Problem Solvers Caucus have put their feet down and demanded change. Perhaps they can follow through on their bold proposals with action come January.