After watching several hours of the Republican scramble to find a Speaker of the House of Representatives after a handful of reckless right-wingers ousted Kevin McCarthy, I turned off my TV. I reflected on the fact that Congress, especially the House of Representatives, is a mess. Not only is Congress not doing the people’s business, but the functionality of the other two branches of government, the executive and the judiciary, is being undermined. This has to stop.
The public, not knowing how to fix the mess, is losing faith in Congress. That puts our representative democracy at risk. It is no wonder that some misguided voters are gravitating towards authoritarianism. Or why Washington is described in pejorative terms, including circus, clown show, or “the swamp.”
Examples of Congress’ dysfunction are plentiful. Complaints come from Democrats and Republicans, and especially from citizens who do not follow politics closely. People want a Congress that is honest, works hard, and inspires American youth to believe in and promote democracy. They are not getting it.
Recent examples of Congressional dysfunction paint a picture of a Congress more interested in self-preservation, or something more nefarious, than in anything that makes government work.
Congress is unable to consider and pass appropriations bills on time. As a result, Continuing Resolutions or omnibus bills, sometimes thousands of pages long, are substituted. The bills are passed without hearings that could surface wasteful spending or bad policies. Most members don’t read them before voting. Not surprisingly, these bills create opportunities for “stealth amendments” that would never pass Congress if considered separately or scrutinized closely.
Congressional oversight hearings have become political stunts, motivated by partisan politics and frequently used as the foundation for fundraising. Jim Jordan, Matt Gaetz, and Marjorie Taylor Green come to mind, but Democrats also use hearings for grandstanding, as best exemplified by Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA).
Both parties have elected legislators who have lied about their backgrounds. The most recent example is George Santos (R-NY). Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal misled voters about serving in the Vietnam War. He was never deployed there.
Members of Congress spend more time raising campaign funds than researching and working on legislation. One House member estimated that the typical member spends between 20 and 30 hours per week fundraising.
Because Congressional leadership sometimes pushes Committee Chairpersons to use their committees to generate campaign contributions, important legislation is sometimes delayed to maximize contributions from lobbyists (Committee members create additional weeks, months, and, in some cases, years to solicit funds from lobbyists with interests in particular bills.)
Members attempt to manipulate the executive branch or judicial actions inappropriately. For example, Republicans sought to eliminate funding for Jack Smith’s prosecution of Donald Trump. Members also sometimes pressure federal agencies in support of or against actions that benefit specific corporations in their state or district. New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez (D) is facing felony charges relating to such an action.
Is the case hopeless? Is Congress so broken that it is time to look at alternatives? No. Because any “alternative” to a representative democracy would involve diluting or restricting democracy. We have no choice but to try to address the issues that are handicapping Congress.
Here are a few suggestions:
Both parties should require any candidate running for office under their label to submit to a full background check, similar to the one required for federal executive branch employees. Such a check would have caught George Santos — and others.
Congress needs to fix the Congressional budget process, possibly by prohibiting omnibus legislation or by requiring any Continuing Resolution to include a five percent decrease in appropriations for all agencies except for the Department of Defense or other “emergency” funding. Congress may need to adopt a two-year budget cycle to make consideration of all individual appropriation bills possible.
Standards for the conduct of Congressional oversight hearings should be established by both parties to require civil treatment of witnesses and to censure members who are accused of grandstanding or abusing witnesses or other members.
Both parties should enact campaign finance reform to voluntarily limit the amount of fundraising permitted for each House or Senate seat. The limits would vary by the population of the state or district. Alternatively, party leadership could limit fundraisers in Washington to one day per week. Ideally, much more aggressive measures would be enacted to reduce the influence of lobbyist money in politics.
Congressional leadership needs to require authorizing committees to complete work on legislation requiring reauthorization by the year during which an authorization expires. One-year reauthorizations would be restricted to emergencies. (The effectiveness of this “fix” would depend on the integrity of the Congressional leadership.)
The Department of Justice should step up oversight of Congress and encourage whistleblowers to report perceived inappropriate actions by legislators involving the attempt to influence executive branch action. Funding for the Department of Justice would be made permanent to avoid efforts like those recently made by House Republicans to delay the prosecution of Donald Trump by “defunding” prosecutor Jack Smith.
And can we ignore the ouster of House Speaker Kevin McCarthy? Party caucuses of both parties urgently need to adopt rules to prevent small groups of radicals from removing a speaker and bringing the business of the House to a standstill.
These and other reforms are needed. Is there any chance of action on any of them? Yes, but only if voters demand it. Citizens get the government they deserve. Congress is rotten today because not enough of us are demanding reform.
J.E. Dean is a retired attorney and public affairs consultant writing on politics, government, birds, and other subjects.