The other day, someone I’ve known for years offered a pointed bit of criticism. “It’s easy for people like you to make long lists of things Congress should do to improve,” he said. “But you know good and well most of them won’t happen. So if you’re really serious, what’s the one most important thing it could do?”
He was right. “People like me” – that is, people who comment publicly about all the things Congress gets wrong – often have long laundry lists of fixes. But the most important fix? That takes some thinking.
I’ve spent some time on it and have my answer: Return to the regular order.
I know, even a lot of wonks don’t know what that means. You could think of the regular order as the rules, precedents and norms that have evolved over history to make sure Congress treats its members fairly in the course of their work and that it plays its proper role in our scheme of government. It’s how Congress ensured that a diversity of voices got heard, members got the benefit of the best thinking in the country on difficult issues, and even rank-and-file members had a chance to shape policy.
I put those in the past tense because, mostly, they no longer happen. Instead, Congress has gotten into some distressing habits – omnibus bills, weakened committees (especially in the budget process), amendment-free legislating – that add up to a curtailed process dominated by the leadership.
The result is the diminished, unproductive Congress we now see. Deliberation, openness, the give-and-take of a free society, the process of consulting with experts and those who might be affected by legislation, a Congress that squarely addresses the tough questions that need to be answered if we’re to move forward as a society – all have fallen victim to Congress’s abandonment of the regular order.
We have two centuries of experience that have taught us how to run a legislature so that the voices of the American people can be reflected in the halls of power, that multiple viewpoints get fair and respectful consideration, and that ordinary legislators have a fair shot at influencing the results. Until we get back to that, no amount of tinkering will add up to much.
Lee Hamilton is a senior adviser for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government and a former Democratic congressman.