November 11, 2015: Congress'
approval rating drops to 11 percent - CBS News
October 12, 2016: Ahead of Elections, U.S. Congress Approval at 18%
· January 15, 2017: 15.3% Average Congressional Job Approval (11/16/16 - 1/15/17)
I’ve been searching for the Achilles' heel, the linchpin of Congressional dysfunction -- the one thing, that if you could fix it – Congress would function better. There are so many individual things that contribute to Congressional dysfunction that result in gridlock and the body’s historically low approval ratings.
Some of the obvious are: intensive partisanship; lobbying and moneyed influencing; gerrymandering; excessive use of the silent filibuster in the Senate; the so-called Hastert rule in the House; riders & unrelated amendments tacked onto bills; Senatorial “holds” that allow any Senator to stall legislation; and many House and Senate arcane rules and procedures that are used to gum-up the works of the legislative process.
One not so obvious mechanism of gridlock that is currently embedded in the foundation of the legislative process is the House and Senate committee system. This system, which gives overriding power to the majority party, is rarely discussed or challenged and is completely self imposed by operating procedures of the House and Senate. There is no Constitutional or legal requirement for the process.
There are some 200 committees and subcommittees in the House and Senate – 21 major committees in each house and approximately 150 Subcommittees between the two chambers.
If you do any research on how government works you will quickly be informed that the committee, and even further the subcommittee, level is where the legislative process begins. As I pointed out in a previous post, the committee and subcommittee level is where specific legislative language is developed, staff research is done, experts are consulted, hearings and public meetings are held, witnesses and interest groups testify and votes are taken to move things forward. This is where lobbyists and interest groups have their greatest influence because they are dealing with fewer legislators that they must win over to their point of view. Also, Congressional committees perform the critically important function of oversight of Executive branch agencies and actions.
Obviously, the committees and subcommittees are where the power structure of Congress begins. The leaders of these bodies have enormous power to control and manage legislative development. One thing that you rarely hear about is the details of how these bodies are structured and how they operate. It is here, at this very basic level of the legislative and governing process where one, so inclined, could begin to repair Congressional gridlock.
Party leaders generally determine the total size of committees and the ratio of majority to minority members on each of them. House committees vary from 10 to 61 members, with an average of about 40. Senate committees are smaller, varying from 6 to 28; most have between 16 and 20. Members of both parties serve on each committee, with the majority party having more seats.
For example, the powerful House Energy & Commerce Committee is currently chaired by Representative Fred Upton (R-MI). The Committee includes 31 Republican members and 23 Democratic members. There are six separate subcommittees. A typical subcommittee, the Environment & Economy Subcommittee is chaired by Representative John Shimkus (R-IL). The Subcommittee includes 12 Republican members and 8 Democratic members.
Thus, all environmental issues (legislation and oversight) that are considered in the House of Representatives begin their journey first in the Subcommittee and then the full Committee and are completely controlled by the Chairmen of these bodies and all matters are decided where the majority party has a significant voting advantage.
Although House and Senate rules provide some concessions to the minority party, the bottom line is that they have no real control over the agenda, all actions are controlled by the majority party; they are provided less budget and staff resources, witness testimony is always lopsided in favor of the majority, and most importantly they are out-voted and out-maneuvered on all differing positions.
In the search for the Achilles' heel of gridlock, this is where we must ask the question: If the country is divided 50-50 along political ideologies why do we give complete legislative and oversight control to the so-called “majority” party?
In the most recent election, Republicans won majority control of the membership in House and Senate and likewise won Executive branch control through the Electoral College. But, to understand gridlock you have to look at and recognize the ideological split of the country. The best measure of that is the recent popular vote where 48.2% of the population voted for
, 46.1% voted for
Trump and 5.7% voted for others. For discussion purposes, call it a 50-50 split
at best. Clinton
It’s not rocket science to understand that if you have a 50-50 ideological split of the population and you are addressing almost any major issue like climate change, immigration reform, jobs, equality, gun violence, health care, family planning, minimum wage, infrastructure, etc.; or, if you are providing oversight of Executive branch agencies, you’re going to have immediate and intense gridlock if only one party controls the complete agenda of activities.
While Republicans control the House by 241-194 and the Senate 52-48, wouldn’t it make sense, considering the political divide of the country, if the committees and subcommittees had an equal number of Republican and Democratic members and a shared power arrangement? This would immediately force bipartisanship and would result in much higher quality legislation and oversight at the start of the process. Legislation that made it to the House and Senate floor under this process would likely pass with overwhelming margins from both sides. Likewise, oversight activities would be much more meaningful and likely result in constructive changes and improvements in agency programs, budgets and actions, rather than witch hunts and political theater.
Under a system of shared committee power, much of the incentive for gridlock, political posturing and what I call “gridlock games” (arcane rules and procedures that are used as political tricks by both majority and minority parties) would be lost.
Another major advantage of a shared power arrangement would be the allocation and utilization of staff resources. In 2000, House committees had an average of 68 staff and Senate committees an average of 46. Under the existing system the majority party gets the largest number of staff resources and staff are biased and aligned with their party leadership.
Staff resources are critical and their main job is to assist with writing, researching, analyzing, amending, and recommending measures to their committee leadership. Most staff and resources are controlled by the majority party members of a committee, although a portion must be shared with minority party members.
If unbiased staff resources were focused on various issues the process would likely move more quickly and much less time would be spent on opposition research and counterproductive activities. Lobbyist and interest groups would not be able to simply focus their efforts on party or a few key legislators, but would have to make more reasoned and compromising proposals that would be acceptable to staff and a majority of committee members.
Many political insiders that have observed or participated in the modern day committee process may say this idea of shared power is simply impractical, too contentious and flies In the face of current political norms. But, before we dismiss the idea, it’s important to take a historical look at the evolution of the committee process.
In the document, An Overview of the Development of U.S. Congressional Committees, by Michael Welsh it is noted that, “. . .it is useful to remember that Congress originally had no standing committees. Its legislative business was conducted either by temporary select committees, or by referrals to cabinet departments like Treasury, War and State, and was largely directed by the budding political parties of the era. Congress, however, soon discovered that it needed its own institutions -- permanent committees – to effectively craft legislation, properly oversee the Executive Branch and assert its standing as the first branch of government. . .
“. . . before 1846, (when the majority and minority party members agreed to use lists of committee members cleared by party caucuses). Majority party leaders often could not control committees. Indeed it has been estimated that between 1819 and 1832 a fifth of Senate committees were controlled by the minority party; and that one-fourth were chaired by minority party members.”
Additionally, before we dismiss the idea of shared committee power we need to take a careful look at the two existing committees in Congress that already operate under a shared power arrangement – the House and Senate Ethics Committees.
The Committee on Ethics is unique in the House of Representatives. Consistent with the duty to carry out its advisory and enforcement responsibilities in an impartial manner, the Committee is the only standing committee of the House of Representatives with its membership divided evenly by party.
For example, the House Ethics Committee rules provide that: “The staff is to be assembled and retained as a professional, nonpartisan staff. . . The staff as a whole and each individual member of the staff shall perform all official duties in a nonpartisan manner. . . No member of the staff shall engage in any partisan political activity directly affecting any congressional or presidential election. . .” The Senate Ethics Committee rules contain similar provisions.
It is possible to envision that rules and procedures for a shared power committee and subcommittee arrangement could be devised using concepts contained in the House and Senate Ethics Committees’ rules and those governing Conference Committee procedures where differing issues are resolved.
In conclusion, Congress, which is now controlled by the Republican Party, can continue to govern under a philosophy that half of the population does not exists or it can choose another path. It can continue to proceed under the illusion that it has a mandate to ignore the hopes and desires of half of the population or it can choose another path. It can continue to perpetuate
gridlock and further divide the country or it can choose another path. It can
continue to diminish its power and respect as a major branch of government or it
can choose another path. Washington
A simple change of course could reap huge benefits to a country that is deeply divided and begging for new direction.