Can Congressional Reform Help End Policy Gridlock? A Roundtable Discussion
Panel: Eric Schickler, Professor of Political Science, University of California, Berkeley; Bill Hoagland, special assistant, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist; David Pomerantz, professional staff, House Appropriations Committee Minority. Roundtable participants: 22 current and former senior congressional staff, area political scientists, and Capitol Hill media correspondents.
With the Democratic takeover of both houses of Congress on November 7, some changes in the way the institution operates are bound to occur—-at least in the House of Representatives. Speaker-presumptive Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), has promised more oversight, greater comity and fairness to the minority, and a return to regular order in committees and on the floor. However, a roundtable of current and former Hill staff, area political scientists, and journalists expressed some skepticism that a spirit of bipartisanship over policy challenges would take hold given continuing ideological polarization between the parties and the new majority's reelection imperative.
U.C. Berkeley political scientist Eric Schickler, however, argued the time was right for significant reform of Congress given the uncertainty over which party would control Congress and the White House after the 2008 election. That could be an incentive for both parties to agree to changes that would strengthen Congress's capacity as a counterweight to Executive powers, said Schickler. He called for a joint House-Senate committee to recommend changes next year—-similar to the bipartisan joint committees that produced the 1946 and 1970 Legislative Reorganization Acts. However, Schickler advised against having the joint committee recommend changes in committee jurisdictions since turf fights could undermine other worthwhile changes to strengthen committees' lawmaking and oversight capabilities.
Bill Hoagland, a budget and appropriations expert with the Senate Majority Leader's office, disagreed, saying the only good reason to have a joint committee would be to straighten out the tangled jurisdictional lines in both houses and ensure that the two bodies will have roughly parallel structures. Hoagland also challenged the notion that gridlock was necessarily bad. The Framers designed our system for gridlock, Hoagland said, so that government would not become too powerful or ambitious. He also questioned the notion that bipartisanship was necessarily good, pointing to last year's highway bill with its costly earmark projects as an example of bipartisanship gone wild. Hoagland did agree that committees needed more time to do their work properly, and urged a biennial budget and appropriations cycle that would allow committees more time to conduct effective, programmatic oversight.
David Pomerantz, a staff member to the House Appropriations Committee's Democratic minority, cautioned against looking at formal rules changes as a panacea for improving Congress. A majority of Members can do what they want regardless of what the rules say. Moreover, the atmosphere of Congress can be changed without having to change the rules. Quite often, rules changes tend simply to be a codification of informal practices that Members have found, over time, to be the most convenient way of doing things. Other rules changes are those that a minority party felt strongly about and put into force once they came into the majority. Sometimes rules changes are put forward under the guise of reform as a substitute for the political will that is actually needed to solve problems. Pomerantz predicted new earmark transparency rules would be adopted at the start of the next Congress. He also suggested the need for some changes in the budget process since "there's a lot broke there."
Roundtable participants expressed differing views over whether policy gridlock is actually a problem, and whether any kind of formal or informal changes in rules and procedures can alter what are in effect political stalemates over how best to address a problem, or are due to the lack of any public consensus or even understanding of the problem and possible solutions. As one participant put it, political courage and leadership are more important than any combination of reforms you might devise. Nevertheless, there was a consensus that the committee system had been weakened over the last several decades and that strengthening it was the key to making Congress once again a coequal branch with the Executive. The best way to make committees stronger is to give them more time to do their work, meaning four or five-day workweeks instead of the two to three days Members now spend in Washington. Others suggested that Members will still not do adequate committee work as long as they are constantly engaged in raising campaign money. While public financing of campaigns would alleviate the pressures for raising money and related interest-group demands for earmarks, the public has yet to be persuaded that their tax dollars should subsidize congressional campaigns.