Modernize Congress to make it work for the people
BY FORMER REP. ALLYSON Y. SCHWARTZ (D-PA.), OPINION CONTRIBUTOR
Imagine if your office scheduled two mandatory meetings at the same time, or your school scheduled two classes you were expected to attend simultaneously — not just occasionally, but regularly. And, imagine that these were important meetings where decisions are made that affect the country’s future.
You would be worried, frazzled and probably distracted, wondering if you made the right decision. Worse yet, you may be able to show up and make your point, but rarely able to engage in the kind of fact-finding and dialogue that leads to consensus and action.
Yet, that is exactly what is going on in Congress these days.
During my decade serving in Congress, I had to make countless decisions about which meetings or committee hearings to attend and for how long, because of scheduling conflicts. I did so, knowing how important is was to focus on the priorities of the people in my home district and the needs of the nation.
But, now, things have gotten worse. I hear from new and seasoned members of Congress that they are constantly running from meetings to hearings and multiple series of votes on the floor.
They might get their daily steps in, but they’re concerned that important hearings and debates are not getting the attention they deserve. They know the process of debate and decision-making needs to be better.
These are just two of many examples of outdated processes on Capitol Hill that need to be modernized. From insufficient staff training to obsolete technology to committee processes that increasingly stifle debate and collaboration, it’s no wonder that most people think Congress is not getting the job done.
The good news is that there is a group of six Democrats and six Republicans working together to improve the legislative process to bring it into the 21st Century.
The House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, led by Chairman Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.) and Vice Chair Tom Graves (R-Ga.), was created after an overwhelmingly bipartisan vote at the beginning of this congressional term.
At the committee’s first hearing, nearly three dozen members of Congress testified in support of its mandate, including Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.)
Just before the August recess, the committee unanimously agreed on two dozen wide-ranging recommendations to address critical problems in technology, staffing, and more.
According to good government groups like the Bipartisan Policy Center, these reforms would be an important step in helping to make Congress more effective for the American people and more efficient for taxpayers.
Refreshingly, the members of this committee are putting functioning government over partisanship and focusing more on attending to the needs of the country than on politics.
They’re working to make meaningful changes. Some will never make headlines, but they will make a difference. The Select Committee has a small budget and a short timeline to recommend fixes, but it is off to an encouraging start.
When I was a new Democratic member of Congress, I attended orientation sessions that included newly-elected Democrats and Republicans.
I recall spending time with other freshmen, hearing their perspectives away from the debates of the campaign. I better understood our differences and where we might find common ground. Today, things are far more polarized. Now, I’m told, even the shuttle busses taking new lawmakers to freshmen orientation are separated between the two parties.
One of the select committee’s two-dozen recommendations is to create a non-partisan orientation process for new members. It’s a great idea because it’s much harder to demonize your political opponents once you’ve gotten the chance to know them as people.
Of course, there are bigger and more complex issues the committee must tackle when it returns in September. Over the past few decades, the legislative process itself has made it harder to get things done.
Even the budget and passage of appropriations bills that fund the government are difficult to finish on time. Uncertainty about government impacts everyone from seniors who rely on Medicare to children who depend on school lunches.
The reality is that our great democracy depends on Congress, the legislative branch of government, to do its work and do it on time. A dysfunctional Congress cedes too much power to the executive branch of government. And, this hurts all of us who count on our democracy to protect us and offer the freedom and opportunity important to all of us.
The stakes are high. Without a Congress that works, our elected leaders can’t address critical issues like reducing health-care costs, keeping us safe, deciding on how we use taxpayer dollars, and strengthening our economic future.
James Madison wrote in the Federalist Papers that, “In republican government, the legislative authority necessarily predominates.” I’m hopeful that the select committee will help Congress reassert its role as the first branch of government among equals.
Allyson P. Schwartz is president and chief executive officer of the Better Medicare Alliance and is a former U.S. representative from Pennsylvania.