by Michael Cain
In the last few years there’s been an enormous amount written about (1) what’s wrong with Congress and (2) how to fix the problem. The beginning of the new year, and the beginning of the 114th Congress, seem like an appropriate time to visit those questions once again. I’ll sum up my take on the first in a single sentence: the fundamental problem with Congress is that it doesn’t have enough to do to keep 535 members busy. I know that sounds a bit silly, given the panic mode that the 113th Congress was in coming down towards its holiday adjournment. Bear with me, please.
For the last century, Congress has been involved with fewer and fewer of the details of legislation. Consider the Affordable Care Act. Despite complaints that the 961 pages that make up the two bills implementing the law were ridiculously long, that count is dwarfed by the 10,535 pages of regulations that had been published by October, 2013 . While the statute is unlikely to change except in minor ways in the next couple of years, it’s a sure thing that hundreds if not thousands more pages of regulations will be added. Or consider the issue of greenhouse gas emissions, which I believe will be one of the preeminent issues of this half-century. Whether to regulate and how to regulate is being decided without – to this point – any action by Congress whatsoever. You can make all sorts of arguments for why this is the common practice: progressive power grab, an increasingly complex world in which Congress must depend on experts, etc. Regardless, Congress is seldom involved in the details of policy.
So, if Congress doesn’t deal with the large mass of details, what about the “big picture” decisions? Today, doing that requires a situation where a majority of the House , a 60-vote majority of the Senate, and the Oval Office all agree that something big should be done. That’s been a pretty infrequent occurrence over the last decade-plus: tax cuts in the face of apparently large budget surpluses, things associated with the Department of Homeland Security, adding Medicare Part D benefits, and the ACA come to mind. The budget, nominally the most important thing Congress considers, less so. The last time Congress passed all twelve appropriations bills was 1997. Another difficulty with big-picture changes is that there are simply fewer places where the new big things can be done. Congress is much more likely to face changing an existing big thing. That can be difficult because special interest groups who have adjusted to the current thing mostly oppose changes. Short version of the last two paragraphs: Congress has painted itself into a corner where there’s not all that much legislating that’s possible to do.
What would we expect the end-game to be if Congress has largely taken itself out of the legislating business? I would argue that where we are is not a surprise. Fewer bills passed, because there are fewer new program areas to consider, and adjustments to existing programs are handled by regulation rather than legislation. Greater animosity between the President and members of Congress from the other party, largely arguing over how the bureaucracy is filling in the regulatory details. More and more members saying silly things in public because they don’t have a whole lot else to keep them busy. That last one is an even greater risk for newer members because of the way Congress organizes its work. Leadership positions and committee chairs are largely reserved for people who have been in office for decades. Unsurprisingly, too many members of Congress act like bored children.
For fixing this, I’m going to limit the range of things I allow myself to consider: no constitutional amendments; no Supreme Court reversals of a hundred years of precedents about independent agencies. Instead, two changes that can be done to the rules by which each chamber operates. First, the session ends on the 30th of June, period. It is no harder to pass a panic-mode continuing budget resolution in June than it is in December. Leave in provisions for leadership to call members back to Washington for an emergency. My preference would be that such emergencies be confined to a single subject. Second, while Congress is in session, members practice something that approximates the full-time work week the rest of us are used to. Convene Monday through Friday at 9:00. Day-to-day floor work doesn’t take all that long, so recess appropriately to allow committees to do their things.
I admit that these rule changes would impose greater personal hardships on some members than on others. The members from Maryland or Delaware can probably catch a relatively brief train ride home on Friday from Washington, where the West Coast members face six hours flying time plus airport delays each way. A variation on one of Will Truman’s proposals can fix that. Two months on the East Coast, two months on the West Coast, and two months somewhere in the middle of the country . If the necessary information to conduct business can’t be made available to members in those locations, some IT director needs to lose their job. It’s the Age of the Internet, isn’t it?
 Page counts from this article.
 That assumes that the House majority leaders are also in favor. At one point this past year, it was clear that the Senate-approved immigration bill would pass if it reached the House floor. Republican leadership in the House declined to allow that vote to occur.
 North Platte, Nebraska or Dodge City, Kansas would be interesting choices on multiple levels.