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.