Washington, D.C. – Jason Grumet, President of the Bipartisan Policy Center, told lawmakers on Capitol Hill today that, “If we want a functional democracy, we must spend less time lamenting our divisions and focus our attention on practical opportunities to strengthen our deliberative institutions.”
In testimony to the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, Grumet made recommendations to improve the essential functions of Congress. He stressed the importance of three things: relationships, incentives, and rules.
“If we want Congress to have the deliberative capacity to resolve real differences, we must develop practical opportunities to build relationships that mesh with the myriad demands on a member’s time,” he said.
“There are [also] significant electoral incentives that drive members toward ideological rigidity. We must create countervailing incentives that encourage and enable governing. Re-empowering congressional committees and restoring a responsible system for congressionally directed spending are two opportunities that would make a meaningful difference.”
Grumet added that Congress has adopted a series of “well-intentioned rules that have weakened its deliberative capacity. Congress should seek to modernize aspects of its ethics rules that are hindering engagement with one another.”
“The good news is we don’t need an alien invasion to pull the country together or a constitutional convention to enact meaningful change,” said Grumet. “The design, mission, and approach of this committee on the modernization of Congress presents an important opportunity to solve some of Congress’ most pressing problems.
There are strong headwinds buffeting our democracy today. Low-turnout primary elections hand decision-making authority to strongly ideological segments of the electorate. Geographic sorting by political beliefs is driving an organic gerrymandering that feeds regional division and alienation. Disaggregated media successfully stokes the respective party bases. These are all real challenges that demand solutions. In the meantime, Congress has an obligation to govern a divided nation.
Harsh differences and polarization are not new themes in American democracy. What is new, is Congress’ diminished capacity to manage these challenges. Twenty years ago, Congress was far from a halcyon era of placid cohesion. During the Clinton Administration strident partisanship and the politics of personal destruction fueled political disarray. The federal government was shut down for weeks on end. The House of Representatives impeached the president. Yet, despite the rancor, the legislative and executive branch continued to work together to advance meaningful legislation—in fact, within three weeks of his impeachment, President Clinton was signing bipartisan legislation into law. In the 106th Congress, while the Clinton impeachment proceedings careened through the legislative branch, 580 public laws were enacted. Thus far, the current Congress has only enacted 56 public laws.
What has changed? The culture of collaboration that once steeled American democracy against division has eroded. Long gone are the days when Republican and Democratic families attended the same social events, when their kids went to school together, or when they took substantive bipartisan trips to form a common understanding of challenging issues and one another. Instead, lawmakers are functionally discouraged from forming the personal cross-partisan bonds necessary for a healthy legislative process. It is now a badge of honor to sleep on your office couch and take the first flight back home to prove that you are not a swamp dwelling Washington insider.
Even the shuttle buses at orientation for freshman members of Congress are divided between Republicans and Democrats. Caucus meetings and policy lunches are conducted along purely partisan lines. Congressional committees, which traditionally have been engines of democracy and the place where members work together to build bipartisan bridges, have been systematically weakened as party leaders increasingly script and dictate major pieces of legislation.