Casey Burgat is a governance fellow at the R Street Institute.
It is not breaking news that most Americans are pessimistic about Congress. This negativity is reflected in Congress’ dismal 20 percent approval rating and another equally telling statistic that 79 percent of Americans simply don’t trust the government in Washington to do the right thing on most occasions. Both indicators are at near-historic lows.
Undeniably, Congress earned some of this opprobrium. Not passing budgets, failing to resolve policy controversies (e.g., health care insurance) and generally giving the outward appearance of being in the grips of maniacal hyper-partisanship—our national legislature has looked anything but august.
Nonetheless, there are good things happening on Capitol Hill that merit consideration and wider media attention. Especially encouraging are the signs that Congress is investing in its capacity to get things done and taking action to strengthen itself vis-a-vis the executive branch.
Here are eight pieces of good news about our national legislature we can all celebrate.
- Investment in congressional staff. For years, congressional staff salaries have slid, and talented public servants have left Capitol Hill for lobby shops. Congress clearly recognizes this is a problem. For FY2016, the House voted to increase each member’s Representational Allowance (MRA) by 1 percent, which allows representatives to hire additional staff or better compensate their existing staff. Also, in May 2016, the House Appropriations Committee agreed to an amendment that would increase the FY2017 MRA by an additional 1.5 percent. Though the larger funding bill was not enacted, these increases to the MRA are clear signals that members recognize that Congress cannot do its job on the cheap.
- Investment in congressional committees. In an effort to increase policymaking and oversight capabilities of the House, the Committee on House Administration authorized higher funding levels for 19 of 20 House committees. The Committees on Agriculture, Armed Services, House Administration, Oversight and Government Reform, and Transportation and Infrastructure enjoyed an increase of over 10 percent in their authorizations, while the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence received a bump of over 30 percent from the previous Congress.
- Bipartisan productivity by the Senate Intelligence Committee. The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence has shown a commitment to conducting a thorough and bipartisan investigation into Trump campaign-Russia links and Russian interference in the 2016 election. Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Vice Chairman Mark Warner (D-Va.) demonstrate bipartisan oversight is possible through their joint press conferences, briefings and joint statements through the committee. The overall tone and demeanor when speaking with and about each other is in stark contrast to many inter-party congressional interactions.
- An open hearing by a House Appropriations Subcommittee. For the first time since 2010, the House Appropriations Legislative Branch Subcommittee allowed private, non-government individuals to submit and present testimony on myriad issues. Usually, only individuals who are invited can come speak their mind. But May 3, 2017, John Q. Public was free to come and talk with legislators.
- More brainpower for Congress. Congress’ private, nonpartisan think tank, the Congressional Research Service, received an increase of $1 million over the previous fiscal year level within the omnibus House appropriations bill passed May 5, 2017. Though the extra funds represent less than 1 percent in additional funding, when compared to declines in funding of several other government entities, the largely symbolic gesture highlights the important role CRS plays in assisting Congress with their duties.
- Pushback against the president. Despite low approval ratings, Americans of both parties recognize Congress is a vital check on the concentration of power in the executive branch. In a recent Pew Research Center poll, 94 percent of respondents said dividing power among the president, Congress and the courts is “very” or “somewhat important” to the maintenance of a strong democracy. Additionally, 77 percent were wary of granting the president additional powers for combating the nation’s problems. In response, the recent omnibus appropriation takes steps to curb executive authority in specific areas.
- More oversight power for Congress. In December 2016, President Obama signed the Inspector General Empowerment Act of 2016. Many argue the law solidifies the independence of agency inspectors general and strengthens access to requested agency documents, data and information. The Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency (CIGIE) called the law “a landmark piece of legislation welcomed by all IGs and all advocates of government accountability and efficiency.”
- More racial diversity in Congress. In 1981, six percent of the voting members in the House and Senate were racial minorities. In 2017, that number climbed to 19 percent, making the 115th Congress the most racially diverse in the institution’s history. Minorities make up 38 percent of the American population; so there is far more work to do to make both chambers more demographically representative bodies. But, the trend line clearly is positive. And 20 of 59 (34 percent) of newly elected members are racial minorities.
None of these individual shoots-of-green will fully assuage the fears that the institution is dysfunctional. The ongoing “Obamacare” repeal uncertainty, continuing under-representation of women and other groups in both chambers, and perceptions of politically motivated oversight and corruption will fuel popular concern of congressional actions and motives. But, in a time where seemingly every news story and political conversation begins and ends with abject pessimism toward Congress and its ability to operate, even the smallest healthy signs should remind us: our national legislature is not beyond repair.
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