Congress: Sure it’s broken, but how can we fix it?

working congress cover

By Robert Mann

Was there ever a new Congress – at least in the last hundred-plus years – which convened amidst such low expectations and so much public disgust?

“Americans’ job approval rating for Congress averaged 15% in 2014, close to the record-low yearly average of 14% found last year,” Gallup reported in December. “The highest yearly average was measured in 2001, at 56%. Yearly averages haven’t exceeded 20% in the past five years, as well as in six of the past seven years.”

An institution deplored by 85 percent of the U.S. public might be able to pass laws (although even that is often impossible); it cannot claim to effectively represent the American public. While individual members continue to be reelected in overwhelming numbers, most Americans have dismissed Congress as irrelevant or even harmful to their well-being.

Following the government shutdown in the fall of 2013, the public’s disgust with Congress only deepened. While its paralyzing partisanship and rancor may not be the only factors in Congress’s staggering decline in public opinion, it is difficult to imagine exactly what could be a more significant factor. If Congress – especially the House – will ever function as the representative institution the founders intended, its members must regain the public’s trust. Congress’s low approval rating is not much higher than the four- or five-point margin of error of a poll that might find zero public approval.

Back when I ran the Reilly Center for Media & Public Affairs at LSU’s Manship School, I had the pleasure of working with my former boss, Sen. John Breaux, to convene our school’s annual “Breaux Symposium” in Washington, D.C. In May 2013 – working with the United States Association of Former Members of Congress and George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management – we convened a group of former members of Congress and respected congressional scholars who discussed the current state of our politics and debated what, if anything, could be done to change it for the better.

The product of that symposium is Working Congress, a book I edited and which is published by LSU Press.

I don’t pretend that Working Congress offers solutions that, if adopted, would instantly transform Congress into a bipartisan utopia. In fact, several of the scholars who contributed to the book doubt that there is anything Congress could do in the way of rules changes and other reforms that would significantly modify the institution. They say it will require significant changes to our political system, and to the electorate as a whole, to substantially influence the way Congress conducts its business.

In other words, some argue, it’s not Congress that has grown dysfunctional; it’s our political system itself that no longer works.

Because the new Congress convenes this week, it seems an appropriate time to offer the collective wisdom of our scholars and former members. I hope we’ll be soon sending a copy of the book to every member of Congress.

Who knows, maybe a few of them might read it. Maybe, just as important, some citizens might read it, too, and demand some of the reforms we suggest.

Here, for your consideration, are some of the book’s major points:

Former U.S. Rep. Mickey Edwards, R-OK; vice president of the Aspen Institute

Fix Congressional Redistricting

In nearly four fifths of the states, congressional district boundaries that shape the nature of the electorate are drawn not by disinterested citizens but by whichever party leaders have gained control of a state legislature. In states in which both houses of the legislature and the governor’s office are held by the same party, the common result is for districts to be drawn in such a way as to minimize the likelihood of a serious challenge to the controlling party’s candidates. This practice has been condemned by reformers who wish to see more competition for legislative seats, and it is a reasonable concern, but that’s not the only, or the most important, grounds for objecting to the procedure.

One of the least remembered, and most important, provisions in the Constitution requires that every member of Congress be an actual inhabitant of the state from which he or she is elected. The purpose is clear: voters should have a reasonable amount of familiarity with those who seek to represent them, and members of Congress should be familiar with the interests and preferences of those they represent. My own experience with party-driven redistricting illustrates how that goal of representativeness can be undermined by a system that puts party interests first.

When I was first elected, I represented the entirely urban community in which I had grown to adulthood—the city in which I had attended elementary school, junior high school, and high school and in which the store my father managed either prospered or lagged in step with the success of local businesses and employment at the nearby airbase. I grew up knowing the employers, the products, the sports teams, the acquisitions at the zoo, the fund-raising efforts for the local symphony orchestra. Oklahoma City was diverse, but I knew its rhythms, and the people knew me as one of their own.

As the first member of my party elected in that district since 1928, I was naturally targeted by the opposition party, which then controlled the state legislature and thus drew congressional district boundaries. Unable to defeat me, the legislature redrew my district to put as many of my fellow party members in the district as possible, removing them from other districts that would then be safer for their party. As a result, I found myself trying to adequately represent small-town merchants, wheat farmers, cattle ranchers, Indian tribes—people I grew to have affection for but for whom I could be only a less-than-articulate spokesman when the issues that mattered so much to them came before the Congress for decision. The party that controlled the state legislature—both parties are equally guilty of this—put party advantage ahead of the representativeness that is the essence of a constitutional democracy.

But the point here is about the dysfunction of government; my own inability to be as good a voice for my constituents as they deserved, as bad an outcome as that is, is only one of the results of party control of redistricting. As my district shifted from urban, with a highly diverse population, to rural and much whiter, it became more conservative, and the voters in my already conservative district became even more so. And those who were most politically active and who voted in party primaries, more so still. The same scenario plays out across the country: partisan redistricting makes liberal areas more liberal and less amenable to compromise with conservatives, and it makes conservative districts more conservative and more resistant to working across party lines. Combined with closed party primaries and sore loser laws that largely restrict ballot access to those who have won the endorsement of the most partisan in their own parties, redistricting completes the driving of the stake through the heart of bipartisanship.

More than one fourth of the states have now acted to remove from party leaders the ability to shape congressional district boundaries on the basis of partisan advantage. Every state should do the same thing.

Ross Baker, Professor of Political Science, Rutgers University

Repeal the 1974 Budget Act

Apart from the Senate filibuster the amendment process for the budget resolution is the most partisan moment in Congress. The Senate’s “vote-a-rama” is a pageant of message amendments designed to place colleagues of the opposing party on record in support of or in opposition to inflammatory amendments. The very process itself led former Majority Leader Harry Reid to resist a budget for three years to protect his caucus from mischievous amendments. This maneuver cannot have been the intention of the authors of the Budget Act.

While it would be important to retain the Congressional Budget Office, which the 1974 legislation also created, the entire budget process not only is dauntingly arcane and totally inaccessible even to the most attentive laity but promotes the most poisonous form of “gotcha” partisanship. A budget could be constructed perfectly well by the Joint Economic Committee, which could be endowed with legislative authority that is does not currently possess. Vesting the responsibility for the budget in a committee that is both bipartisan and bicameral would be applauded by reformers.

Abolish Term Limits for Chairman and Ranking Members

The ill-considered reform to remove term limits for top congressional leaders was a product of the “Gingrich revolution” in the House and was subsequently copied by Senate Republicans. It creates periodic havoc as senators and House members who have just mastered the fine points of their committee’s jurisdiction are peremptorily ousted, along with their experienced staffs, and are replaced by personnel who face a steep and protracted learning curve.

The term limit is not only disruptive of the business of a committee; it also undermines bipartisanship because it supplants senior members who have over time developed cordial working relationships across party lines. It also results in staff shake-ups that impair, for a time at least, the functioning of the committee.

Establish Bipartisan Committee Staffs

The Senate Select Intelligence Committee has used the practice of sharing a bipartisan staff to very good effect. This committee also houses its staff under a single roof, as does the much smaller Committee on Indian Affairs. While it is true that the tone of bipartisanship (or lack of it) is set at the top by the chair and ranking minority member, closer personal staff relations across party lines would be facilitated by combining staff office arrangements.

Brian Fife, Professor of Public Policy, Indiana University–Purdue University Fort Wayne

Reform Stringent Voter Registration Laws

Many state officials have a record of not making voting easy for the citizens. When it comes to voter registration, the optimum scenario would be to replicate the North Dakota model. There all citizens become eligible to vote when they reach their eighteenth birthday. The burden of proof for registration is on the state and not on the individual. Most democracies use this methodology because it actually encourages people to participate in the electoral process.

Today people can secure thousands of dollars in credit in minutes, but residents in thirty-one states have to register between 21 to 31 days in advance of an election. Otherwise, such people effectively waive their right to vote until the next election. A second option to encourage more citizen participation at the ballot box would be to implement Election Day registration across the nation. Election Day registration is currently utilized in nine states (Colo., Idaho, Iowa, Maine, Minn., Mont., N.H., Wis., and Wyo.) plus the District of Columbia. In addition, another two states, California and Connecticut, have enacted legislation establishing same-day registration but have not yet implemented it.

Two other states, North Carolina and Ohio, allow voters to register and cast a vote during a state-prescribed early voting period. Finally, in 2016 Maryland will also allow residents to register and vote on the same day during the early voting period but not on Election Day itself. In Election Day or same-day registration states, average voter turnout rates are 12 to 12 percentage points higher than the national average.

Voting is a preeminent right in a democracy. As such, citizens of the United States should be treated in an equitable and undifferentiated manner. Access to the ballot should be universal; computer technology is much too sophisticated today to justify a waiting period of up to 30 days before an election. In the wisdom of the framers of the Constitution, public servants in Congress can intervene in state election law at any time they find it prudent to do so.

On the matter of voter registration in many states, the debate needs to shift away from federalism to substance. Is it reasonable to deter voting through the reliance of antiquated laws? Where equitable conditions do not exist across the country, members of Congress have a responsibility to be the intervener on behalf of the people.

Reform Laws Regarding Felons

According to officials at the Brennan Center for Justice, about 6 million U.S. citizens cannot vote because of a past criminal conviction. Approximately 4.4 million of these Americans live, work, and raise families in communities but are unable to vote. Many of the state laws regarding felons and the franchise are artifacts of a disconcerting racial history, and they have a disparate impact on minorities. Across the United States 13 percent of all African-American men have lost their right to vote, a rate that is seven times the national average for all citizens of voting age.

Felony voting rights vary considerably by state. Policies governing felons and the franchise can be placed into six broad categories: permanent disenfranchisement for all people with felony convictions (Fla., Iowa, Ky., and Va.); permanent disenfranchisement for at least some people with felony convictions (Ala., Ariz., Del., Miss., Nev., Tenn., and Wyo.); voting rights restored upon completion of sentence, including prison, parole, and probation (Alaska, Ark., Ga., Idaho, Kans., La., Md., Minn., Mo., Neb., N.J., N.Mex., N.C., Okla., S.C., Tex., Wash., W.Va., and Wis.); voting rights restored automatically after release from prison and discharge from parole (Calif., Colo., Conn., N.Y., and S.Dak.); voting rights restored automatically after release from prison (D.C., Hawaii, Ill., Ind., Mass., Mich., Mont., N.H., N.Dak., Ohio, Ore., Pa., R.I., and Utah); and no disenfranchisement for people with felony convictions (Maine and Vt.).

A broad gamut exists in current state laws, for a citizen convicted of a felony in Maine or Vermont can cast an absentee ballot from jail while serving his or her sentence; if that person commits the same crime in Florida, Iowa, Kentucky, or Virginia, he or she may never vote again unless voting rights are restored by official state action.

In 2011, Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) introduced the Democracy Restoration Act of 2011 in the House. Later that year Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.) replicated this move in the Senate. The measure has not yet been passed. Currently, 15 states and the District of Columbia have laws that restore voting rights when individuals are released from prison; 35 states have statutes that continue to restrict the franchise to those who are no longer incarcerated.

This practice is not reasonable, does not serve a compelling state interest, and does not provide citizens with equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment. Members of Congress have an opportunity to rectify this practice, which is not utilized in any other democracy, and to restore voting rights to those who have repaid their debt to society as defined by law and common practice.

Take Theodore Roosevelt’s Advice from 1907 

Political campaigns have been expensive entities throughout history, and President Theodore Roosevelt articulated this reality in his State of the Union address on December 3, 1907, when he argued that campaign contributions had to be regulated by Congress in order to protect the greater common good. In this famous speech he endorsed the concept of publicly financed federal campaigns:

Under our form of government voting is not merely a right but a duty, and, moreover, a fundamental and necessary duty if a man is to be a good citizen. It is well to provide that corporations shall not contribute to Presidential or National campaigns, and furthermore to provide for the publication of both contributions and expenditures. There is, however, always danger in laws of this kind, which from their very nature are difficult of enforcement; that danger being lest they be obeyed only by the honest, and disobeyed by the unscrupulous, so as to act only as a penalty upon honest men. Moreover, no such law would hamper an unscrupulous man of unlimited means from buying his own way into office. There is a very radical measure which would, I believe, work a substantial improvement in our system of conducting a campaign, although I am well aware that it will take some time for people so to familiarize themselves with such a proposal as to be willing to consider its adoption. The need for collecting large campaign funds would vanish if Congress provided an appropriation for the proper and legitimate expenses of each of the great national parties, an appropriation ample enough to meet the necessity for thorough organization and machinery, which requires a large expenditure of money. Then the stipulation should be made that no party receiving campaign funds from the Treasury should accept more than a fixed amount from any individual subscriber or donor; and the necessary publicity for receipts and expenditures could without difficulty be provided.

Susan Herbst, political scientist and president, University of Connecticut; author of Rude Democracy: Civility and Incivility in American Politics

Let’s learn to live with a little incivility

Perhaps incivility is overblown as a problem in American culture, and the central issue is how thin-skinned we have become in our daily social and political lives. We do, after all, live in a culture in which self-esteem and good feeling are predominant notions that dictate our policies and actions. As someone who has spent a lifetime in higher education, as a professor and a leader, I can tell you that college students and their parents have changed tremendously over the decades. It is of utmost import that students are treated with kid gloves, that no one offends anyone, and that no one is made to feel inadequate. On the whole, this is very nice, but it has crushed argumentation as a driving force in the academy, particularly in the classroom.

Professors argue hard with each other; we always have, and we probably always will. But the feeling in a classroom now is quite guarded. When I have taught in recent years, I have been very cautious to always be bipartisan, to give students a comfort level in discussion, and not to say anything too outrageous or challenging for fear that I will be reported to a dean. Also, there is the added fear of being recorded, your remarks taken out of context, and making an appearance on YouTube somehow. Professors can’t risk this exposure anymore, especially when they are teaching politically charged subjects, and so they’ve lowered their standard for argumentation in class.

As a result, we teach argument poorly or not at all. I found, in conducting a two-year study of thousands of college students, that they want to avoid argument and conflict at all costs. Here are quotes from two different students, both making the point—that argument is uncomfortable and even scary. The first wrote: “The number of times I’ve seen students almost become violent with another student over politics is a big factor in why I think many students either aren’t respectful or just don’t care. From personal experience, I’ve been verbally attacked quite a few times for my political stance, despite being sure to [choose] my words carefully so as to not cause offense.”

Another wrote: “Whenever there are several diverse groups of people in a certain place, respect generally decreases. While there are many people that are respectful of others and their views, there are also many that criticize due to having a different opinion than their own. At my institution, there are people from many different cultures, races and economic standings . . . [Politics] is a very touchy subject for many, and a conversation between people of different political beliefs would more than likely turn into a very heated and disrespectful debate.”

This fear of argument and discomfort is hardly confined to university students, as anyone who has worked in an office day to day understands. It is well known by social scientists that people selectively expose themselves to others who they already know agree with them. When you are certain that a discussion of, say, health care will set off a debate with a colleague that might get uncomfortable, it is typically avoided. As many people have pointed out to me, extended family gatherings are often the very worst moments to approach controversial issues. Who wants to ruin Thanksgiving dinner when you know that your sister-in-law is fiercely on the other end of the ideological continuum from you? Better just to avoid politics altogether, figure out a way to have a more banal discussion, or selectively talk with your relatives!

A conundrum, then, is that we—college students and those who are much older—avoid argument in daily life but then turn happily to cable television to see generally juvenile and poor argumentation. What is missing are models for passionate argument that may now and then become uncivil but are still largely productive and gratifying. Some incivility is tolerable, and indeed appropriate, if the bulk of discourse is intelligent and evidence based. Alas, my students, and all citizens, find themselves shuttling back and forth between interpersonal situations in which they fear argument and viewing media and blogs in which idiotic and uncivil argument dominates the content.

In my book on civility, I propose the extensive teaching of argument and cite a variety of wonderful tools on the Internet that so many innovative teachers have shared. While we often push the teaching of citizenship onto K–12 educators, escaping that responsibility in higher education, it is the case that early experience with argumentation is extraordinarily valuable in developing democratic hearts and minds. Instead of bland lessons in public speaking or how to use PowerPoint, we should teach young people how to develop their passions and then argue with force and evidence. The earlier we can teach students how to argue with passion and respect, the more practiced they will be with these tools as they advance to adulthood.

The other side of teaching argumentation is teaching students how to listen. There are some exemplary projects in the public sphere, such as NPR’s StoryCorps, but on the whole listening is largely underplayed as a skill vitally needed in developing democratic citizens. Political programming on cable television tends to suppress listening, as various ideologues make their arguments. The result is typically both poor argumentation (scattered, passionate, but without linearity or evidence) and poor or nonexistent listening. A conversation cannot advance, on policy or any other matter, without both argumentation and keen listening, or ideas will lay undeveloped, of course. And neither party learns much.

A population taught those two things—arguing and listening—will over time produce a better electorate and therefore a better Congress.

Former U.S. Rep. Mark Kennedy, R-Minn; director, George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management

Don’t Blame Politics, Excel at It

Too many political leaders were schooled in policy but not politics. They study how to invent perfect solutions but don’t study how to come to the middle and get their hands dirty by negotiating a mutually agreeable path among competing viewpoints on the perfect solution. When they can’t get their perfect, often utopian, solution implemented, they blame it on politics. In doing so, they reveal their ignorance of politics. Competing policy solutions create gridlock—one side wants to raise taxes; the other wants to cut spending. The only solution to this conflict is to get the politics right. In this sense politics trump policy. It is critical to become skilled at gathering allies with common interests and strategically advancing legislation addressing society’s most pressing challenges. This effort involves a three-step process.

Select the right terrain. Successfully advancing your own agenda or thwarting misguided action begins with the vital task of strategically defining the optimal terrain upon which to engage: the question to be asked and the arena in which to ask it.

Hollywood’s failed efforts to advance online piracy bills displayed the primacy of defining the question and working within the optimal arena. Traditional media players such as Comcast, News Corp, Time Warner, and Viacom sought to preserve the incentives for creativity provided by copyright protection. The legislation they supported wanted to prevent U.S. companies from placing advertisements or linking to pirating firms based outside the United States. They sought to make the question “Should U.S. companies assist foreign companies in stealing U.S. property?” and the arena to be the U.S. Congress. They lost to new electronic media outlets such as Facebook and Google that changed the question to, “Do you want the federal government to blackout your Internet access?” and the arena to be that of public opinion among Internet users. Facebook and Google successfully marshaled public opinion, and the bill died before ever receiving a vote. New media redefined the question and arena. Old media lost.

Build a winning coalition. Once you have selected the right terrain, it is essential to understand that your goal must be to build a winning coalition that can appeal to a broad enough cross-section of society or political actors to prevail. This means that those who are least like you are your most valuable partners. Cookies and milk are quite different from one another, but they certainly go well together. The same is true for coalition partners. In partnering with twenty different Democrats to lead legislative initiatives during my time in Congress, I took the view that we may disagree on ninety-nine out of a hundred issues, but that shouldn’t prevent us from working together on the issue upon which we agree.

Make the case. Two common mistakes encountered in making a case for action is to talk about too many messages and not talk about the right messages often enough. The U.S. oil and gas business did an excellent job of making the case when combating efforts to reduce tax incentives for exploration. When the industry CEOs were called before a congressional committee, they all stuck to the same message: incentives drove investment and innovation that sparked a natural gas production revival, which led to high-paying American jobs, cleaner sources of fuel, and greater energy independence. The industry leaders understood that they needed to play an inside game (directly to elected representatives) and an outside game (to the voters), and their message was inescapable in Washington, D.C. The sector’s various players echoed these refrains in billboards in Washington airports, subway stations, subway interiors, bus stops, and bus exteriors.

They understood that when you are sick of repeating a message, it is just beginning to break through the clutter. That sort of discipline is essential for members of Congress in today’s highly contentious environment if they wish to prevail in the legislature.

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