Tomorrow’s Congress Can Take Shape Today

Congress should convene a new Joint Committee tasked with the job of ending gridlock.

Congress does not function. The productivity of the last Congress was the worst in history. Members of Congress have a favorability rating hovering around 13 percent according to the latest Gallup poll. It’s gotten to be a universal truth, not just here but around the world: The greatest deliberative, democratic political body in history doesn’t work anymore.

The good news is there are solutions, from conservatives and liberals, public servants and private citizens, academic institutions and nonprofit organizations, and the media. Some are simple, and some are highly complex. The bad news is that despite the abundance of ideas, these potential solutions lack a credible path to enactment, either by rule or by law. Proposing reform is not enacting it, and advocating change is not making it.

What, then, could bring about true change in Washington?

The answer, perhaps surprisingly, is a committee. But not just any committee – a rarely-used Joint Committee of Congress made up of an equal number of Republicans and Democrats, House members and Senators, working with the Executive Branch. Congress can and should give this Joint Committee broad authority to confront the wide array of serious problems gradually eating away at our system of self-government, ranging from restricted access to legislating to political and ideological rigidity. More importantly, unlike any other mechanism, it would focus and engage the public in the restorative process.

Joint committees on the organization of the Congress have been convened three times in the last century, in 1945, 1965 and 1992-93. Each of them produced results – some more dramatic than others and some more far-reaching than others – but they served the governing process well. A similar exercise also occurred in 1921 as part of a general government reform effort. These reforms were all about a quarter century apart. It is not coincidental that it’s been a quarter century since the last one.

Those of us advocating the joint committee approach, a group of former members and former senior staff, came together several years ago because of the grave concerns we shared that the dysfunction in government was reaching crisis proportions and that reform was imperative. We eventually came up with 40 different reform ideas to change process, politics and particularly, political behavior, but realized it wasn’t enough to propose reforms. Our discussions led to the Joint Committee initiative, now called the Congress of Tomorrow Project, housed at the Congressional Institute.

There is no question that the depth and breadth of the crises we face in governance are of long-standing and stretch beyond Congress, to the Executive Branch, and beyond government to the media and social behavior. But government, and particularly Congress, is where change should begin. Congressional dysfunction and its paralyzing gridlock, whether the symptom or the disease, are at the focal point of what is ailing our political system. That’s why we think the lever of reform should be the Joint Committee we propose.

First, such a Committee can sort through the many ideas that have been offered. Obviously, we are not alone in proposing reforms. Solutions have ranged from something as arcane as matching the federal fiscal year with the calendar year to revamping how we draw congressional districts; how we finance political campaigns; and even repealing the 17th Amendment to the Constitution, which made U.S. senators popularly elected rather than appointed by the states. Some want to deny legislators their pay if they don’t produce a budget and others want to eliminate federal departments, or expand or retract entitlement programs. Others want to restore the balance of power between the Executive and Legislative branches. A Joint Committee can weigh the merits of these ideas and propose the best for consideration.

Second, a Joint Committee can create the kind of environment in which change can take place. It can create a process that enables reform, empowers reformers and is inclusive, disciplined, comprehensive and conclusive. And it can build a road to reform on which all Americans can travel. Ordinary citizens can be engaged and invested; they can watch, listen, learn and ultimately feel they are part of, and the principal reason for, the reformation. This is especially vital for the growing legions of Americans who, rightly so, feel disenfranchised.

One of the core deficiencies in American governance, especially in Congress, is that people don’t trust it or have any confidence in those who serve in it. Our system of government is founded on faith. When there’s no faith, there’s no function. We can’t restore public faith or trust by simply transferring power from leaders to committee chairs and back again, or turning the term “regular order” into a cliche. This process can reverse that crisis of faith.

There’s no need to wait for the next election and the next Congress for reform to begin. This isn’t politics; it’s process. Reform can start now, with the simple introduction of a resolution to create the Joint Committee.

Reforming our system of government has nothing to do with partisanship or ideology. It doesn’t matter whether you are Republican, Democratic or Independent. It doesn’t matter whether you want to tear the government down, or make it bigger, or take away its power or give it more, or spend more or spend less. You can’t accomplish any of those objectives without legislating, without producing public policy, without changing existing laws. And to do that you need a process that works, in a civil atmosphere that is conducive to change.

Congress is the first branch of government, and it must be restored to its rightful place as one of the great governing institutions ever devised, and it is time to start now. You can’t talk your way there or wish your way there. We all must work our way there, remembering the words of Thomas Edison: “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.”

Michael S. Johnson

Michael S. Johnson is a former newspaper editor who served on the White House staff of President Gerald Ford and later served as press secretary and chief of staff to House Republican Leader Bob Michel, prior to entering the private sector. He is co-author of a book, Surviving Congress, a guide for congressional staff. He is currently a principal with the OB-C Group.