Virtual Fix Congress Cohort Listening Session

U.S. President Donald Trump delivers the State of the Union address to a joint session of the U.S. Congress in the House Chamber of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S., February 4, 2020. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
Editor's note:

On March 18, 2021, Molly Reynolds, Senior Fellow in Governance Studies at The Brookings Institution, testified before the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress for a hearing entitled, “Virtual Fix Congress Cohort Listening Session.” In her remarks, Reynolds discusses ways to increase bipartisanship in Congress. Read Reynolds’s testimony below.

Chair Kilmer, Vice Chair Timmons, members of the Committee, and staff: thank you for the opportunity to provide input to you all as you begin your work in the 117th Congress.

While my own research has explored a range of issues of interest to the Committee and I have shared information with you about some of these issues before (including the history of congressional reform efforts, congressional staff capacity, and the budget and appropriations process), my remarks today will focus on two principal areas: floor procedure and committee processes.

Floor procedure

In the Committee’s final report from the 116th Congress, members identified two possible areas of change related to floor procedure for consideration by future Congresses: one related to opening up the amendment process and one related to reforming the motion to recommit. In both cases, the contemporary House is faced with a persistent tension; as my Brookings colleague Sarah Binder has described it in a historical context, “minority exploitation of inherited rules has a substantial impact on change in minority rights, as majority parties realize a partisan need for changing the rules of the game.”[1] If amendment opportunities, for example, are used primarily as signaling devices meant to draw distinctions between the parties and to force members from potentially vulnerable districts to cast what they feel are “tough votes,” then there is little incentive for the majority party to allow for procedures that continue to put their members in difficult spots. Indeed, House Democrats made a change to the motion to recommit for the 117th Congress explicitly designed to reduce its ability to change the underlying bill.

This use of amendments, the motion to recommit, and other dilatory motions (like the motion to adjourn) to create politically difficult circumstances occurs because members believe it is in their interest to do so. Creating a process where more members are able to participate substantively, then, requires changing the incentives members face. Changing the rules often simply displaces the goal-seeking behavior from one tactic to another. That said, one proposal I would encourage the Committee to continue to explore is prohibiting roll call votes on amendments in the Committee of the Whole, but allowing members to call a roll call on anything adopted in the COW after the bill is reported back to the floor. This practice was used in the House prior to 1971 and has the potential to disincentivize members from offering purely “gotcha” amendments.

Continue reading the full testimony here. Watch the full video of Reynolds’s testimony (starting around the 56:00 mark) and the rest of the hearing below.