Four reforms that could change the culture of Congress

Hon. Ernest Istook Former Republican Congressman
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Changing the membership of Congress does not fix its out-of-touch culture.

Congress’ immense unpopularity reflects the need for fundamental change in how it operates.  The Heritage Foundation is proposing four immediate changes — starting at the top.  The proposals would restore more power to rank-and-file members of the House of Representatives, who currently yield too much to party leaders.

The goal is to strengthen the Constitutional design of “the people’s House,” whereby power is intended to flow from the bottom up, not from the top down, as it currently does.  Heritage’s proposal is titled, “Four Immediate Reforms to Change the Culture of Congress.”

Authority should be spread more broadly.  Currently, power is concentrated with the speaker and other party leaders.  It is through party rules of the Democrat Caucus and the Republican Conference that the committees — which are the official House organizations — are brought under the control of party leaders.  Decisions on this system are set to occur the week of November 15th, long before the new Congress gathers in January.

The Heritage proposal would change what elections cannot.  Elections alter who runs the House but cannot address how it is run.  The underlying system has pushed that body out of touch with the American people.  The tenure of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D, CA) has demonstrated the danger of the current system, which concentrates too much power in the hands of too few political party leaders in Congress.

Speaker Pelosi exemplifies what can be done with this accumulated authority, brandishing it to coerce or cajole members of Congress into voting for the non-stimulative stimulus bill, enacting the unwieldy and unaffordable health care law, approving massive deficits, and preventing meaningful options from being considered.  She bypassed the nominal House rules with impunity to produce enormous and ill-reviewed legislation.  Plus she has used her authority to block the needed relief from the massive tax hikes set to occur next year.

Current party rules give party leaders excessive leverage over committee and chairmanship appointments in general, and major slots in particular.  Each party’s Steering Committee, which nominally makes many of those appointments, is dominated by party leaders.

Despite dominating their Steering Committees, party leaders make other key appointments directly and bypass the Steering Committees.

The head of each party — not the Steering Committee — selects who serves on the “select” and “joint” committees.  Party leaders also personally make other key appointments.

The Rules Committee controls what can or cannot be considered on the House floor, including both legislation and amendments.  As its own website proclaims, the Rules Committee functions as an “arm of the leadership” rather than being accountable to the entire Congress.  Currently, the rules of each party give the speaker and minority leader personal control over all members of the Rules Committee.  Changing that would change the entire system of legislation.

(For example, House Republican Conference Rules 12 and 13 grant sole appointive power to their potential speaker-designee over the chairs and all GOP members of the Rules Committee, the Administration Committee, and all select and joint committees of the House.)

Likewise, the speaker and minority leader have a personal lock on who serves on the House Administration Committee, which handles operations and budgeting within the House and determines how resources of funds, space and staff are allocated or denied to members of Congress.

Heritage’s proposal (online here) is a useful guide to how this party-run system operates now and how it should be corrected to make the House more responsive to the will of the American people.  An extra benefit from these reforms might be a less partisan Congress, increasing the ability of members to work across party lines to seek solutions, as they would be less beholden to party leaders.

Citizens have been complaining that Congress needs to be more responsive to the public, and less controlled by Washington’s ways.  This proposal is a solid first step.

Ernest Istook served for 14 years as a U.S. Congressman and is now a distinguished fellow at The Heritage Foundation.