Steps to Repair the “”Broken Branch””

Norman J. Ornstein and
Ornstein headshot
Norman J. Ornstein Resident Scholar for Public Policy Research - American Enterprise Institute
Thomas E. Mann

December 1, 2006

Read the full report at The Reform Institute

The stunning Democratic victory in November in both the House and Senate – 29 seats gained in the House, six in the Senate, with not a single Democratic seat going over to the Republicans – was fueled by a powerful public reaction against the war in Iraq, the incompetence of the federal government in dealing with problems at home and abroad, and the culture of corruption that enveloped the unified Republican government in Washington.

Unhappiness with President Bush surely contributed to the election results. But the U.S. Congress was front and center as public anger grew over cascading governmental failures of performance and ethics.

Voters were right. In each of its central responsibilities – to represent, to legislate, and to check and balance the other branches – Congress has fallen woefully short of the expectations and standards of the Framers of the Constitution. In 37 years each of Congress-watching, we have never seen the institution in worse shape. Its leaders have dismantled the “regular order” of rules and norms, collapsed the deliberative process designed to make laws carefully through debate, amendment and give-and-take, abandoned oversight of the executive branch and allowed the White House to run roughshod over Congress while expanding vastly its own powers.

Democrats ran against the do-nothing Congress, and powerfully condemned the culture of corruption. Now it is their turn to show they meant it. Democrats have the opportunity – and the responsibility – to begin to mend the broken branch. If they fail to do so, by reverting to their old, bad practices when they were last in the majority or by embracing the even worse abuses of the Republicans, their tenure in power will be appropriately short lived. An initial test of their commitment will come early next month, in the first days of the 110th Congress. Here are three concrete actions to match their rhetoric.

The first is the adoption of a serious package of ethics and lobbying reforms. Dealing with the culture of corruption and establishing a legitimate ethics process in Congress will take many steps. Reducing the opportunities available to individual members to deliver special benefits for narrow interests and increasing transparency throughout the legislative process are essential first steps. But the key is credible enforcement of old and new laws and ethics rules. That requires an independent panel within the legislative branch (consisting mainly of former members) to screen charges of unethical behavior and a professional staff to conduct investigations and manage a strengthened reporting and disclosure system.

A second step is to put Congress back to work in Washington. In recent years both the House and Senate have set modern-day records for the fewest days in session, barely 65 full days in the House in 2006. A typical workweek now has members arriving late on Tuesday and departing mid-day on Thursday. Nothing is more important to changing the decision-making and deliberative dynamic in Congress than making sure members are there for sustained periods of time, working on policy and oversight, and interacting with one another in committee and on the floor – and that means a commitment to five-day weeks in Washington, at least 26 of them.

The final step is a return to regular order and deliberation in the House and Senate: serious and open hearings and markups in committees and rules that permit genuine debate and amendment on the floor. It also means ending the practice of holding House votes open well beyond the customary 15 minutes to manipulate the outcome, and providing ample time for members and staff to read the text of bills and conference reports before having to vote on them. Also important is the meaningful involvement of all conference committee members in debating and deciding the content of their report. It further means regular meetings between majority and minority party and committee leaders regarding scheduling and administration of the legislative branch.

These three steps will not alone solve problems like Iraq or looming budget deficits. But they will move us away from a dysfunctional Congress to a functioning branch – a necessary first step to effective governance.