Making Congress Work


Congress was burning the midnight oil once again last week, rushing to pass a resolution extending federal spending for only another month. It was the fourth time legislators have had to do that in as many months.

In Washington, that’s good news. The alternative was to shutter some government agencies until the money could be restored. It is a shame, isn’t it? Dysfunction is the norm.

Taxpayers pay a heavy price for the dysfunction of their government. It runs into the billions upon billions of dollars, mind-numbing figures to average taxpayers who clip dollar-off coupons every Saturday. The most recent extended shutdown—there have been four in the last 10 years—was in 2013 and lasted 14 days, costing taxpayers an estimated $2 billion.

The resolution, a Continuing Resolution so common now we just call it the ‘ole CR, also contained some budget parameters necessary because Congress hasn’t adopted a budget for five of the last six years. In fact, the country hasn’t had a completed budget in most of the years it has had a budget process. That’s not good. The lack of responsible budgeting has helped push the national debt to $21.4 trillion or $62,000 per person. The coupons won’t help.

The CR contained other provisions besides the budget and appropriations extensions. One that went largely unnoticed may actually lead to some improvements. On page 169, too far into the weeds for the media to see it, there is language creating a Joint Select Committee of the Congress to produce legislation to “significantly reform the budget and appropriations process.”

The Joint Committee is a long-delayed acknowledgement that Congress has to face up to its fiscal failures and make the system work again. It also acknowledges for the first time in a quarter-century that an extraordinary, disciplined, bipartisan process is needed to make the necessary reforms a reality.

Congress for years has let the processes of budgeting and spending fall into disrepair. The Budget Act was created in 1974, but over the past six years Congress has produced a budget for the nation only once. Congress is supposed to adopt 12 separate appropriation bills to fund federal programs and agencies each year, but hasn’t done so since 1996. Senator David Perdue wrote in an op-ed recently that there have been 180 continuing resolutions and 19 shutdowns since the Budget Act was enacted.

The Joint Committee offers a way out. It will be composed of 16 members, eight from the House and eight from the Senate, presumably an equal number of Republicans and Democrats since the respective party leaders will appoint an equal number.

The initiative requires that the conclusions of the committee be put in legislative language and submitted to the Congress by the end of November, for expedited consideration by the House and Senate. A lot can go awry between now and November. It isn’t much time, but this initiative beats past practice—doing nothing. It is an idea whose time has come and gone and come again.

Joint Committees on congressional reform have a pretty good track record. There were three Joint Committees on the organization of Congress created in the last century and they all produced results that made the Congress function better. There were other similar efforts dating back to 1910. But Congress hasn’t taken a good look at itself since 1993, so the time for considering some major changes is long overdue.

The Founding Fathers envisioned the Congress as the First Branch of Government, the branch closest to the people with the most responsibility and power. According to my little handbook, it is the First Article of the Constitution that creates the Legislative Branch, in 8 1/2 pages of detail. The Executive comes second, in Article II, in just 2 1/2 pages. There is a message there.

Today, however, the Legislative Branch is out of step, out of touch, and cedes authority to the Executive too often. Only about 15 percent of Americans have faith in the institution. Productivity in the last Congress was among the worst in history. The procedural dysfunction and partisan gridlock are becoming more than a problem; they are of crisis-proportion. Congress has not been a functional institution in years and most Americans are disgusted by it. It is fruitless to point the finger of blame. Both parties are at fault and frankly, so is the entire citizenry.

There is no shortage of ideas on how to improve the budget and appropriations processes. There are literally hundreds of them being proposed by members, former members, think tanks, academics and ordinary people who simply apply some basic common sense. A group of former members and staff with whom I have been working, came up with many, including biennial budgeting and improving how the House and Senate resolve their differences.

And, as serious as the budget and appropriations failures are, they are just the tip of the iceberg. More will need to be done beyond the scope of this Joint Committee. The dysfunction and ideological gridlock run wide and deep, throughout the legislative and political processes, from campaign financing to gerrymandering, two issues taken up by the Bipartisan Policy Center. The process of conducting oversight and authorizing federal programs is broken, too. There are currently more than $300 billion in federal programs that have not been properly reauthorized, including the entire department of Homeland Security and the Justice Department.

Two other highly controversial issues that should be addressed are earmarks and the Senate filibuster. Until now there has been no legislative means of considering all of the worthwhile reform ideas and acting on them. The Joint Committee makes that possible.

The Joint Committee is not the ultimate answer to making Congress worthy of its roots or restoring public faith in the institution, but it may help create an environment in which more can be done. It has some essential elements. It will be bipartisan, bicameral, transparent, inclusive, and disciplined. Success won’t be easy in an election year marked by more bitterness, distrust, and the constant march of ridiculous distractions that produce such big dividends for partisans and the press, but do so little to improve the lives of American citizens. The harsh reality is that we are all asking for a heap of trouble if we don’t try to change attitudes and behavior and restore some sense of self-respect to the process of self-government.

The Joint Committee is a first step. Hopefully, those involved will make it a giant one.

Editor’s Note: Mike Johnson is a former journalist, who worked on the Ford White House staff and 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.