Congress needs to reassert its authority
Davis represented Virginia in the House of Representatives from 1995 to 2008 as a Republican.
It seems that every day Congress takes a verbal beating from President Trump, the press and the public. In addition, there are many long-time members of Congress who have built their reputations on running against the institution, which at last count was running a 12 percent to 15 percent favorable rating among American voters.
This has spawned a small cottage industry of media, think tanks and academicians all of whom have been proposing "reforms" to make the system work the way it was supposed to work – as an Article I, independent branch of government, utilizing its checks and balances on the other two branches of government on behalf of the American public.
Most of these recommended reforms – although well-meaning and, occasionally, thoughtful – are chopped up in the partisan meatgrinder of congressional inaction.
How did Congress get so far off track and how can it be fixed? It starts with the voters themselves who no longer vote the person, but vote the party. Straight-ticket voting is at its highest level in history. For example, only one of the 50 states has a split legislature (Minnesota); the number of states with split U.S. Senate delegations is at the lowest point in more than 50 years; and in 2016 zero states split their presidential and U.S. Senate votes for the first time in history.
Sign up for The Fulcrum newsletter
Most members in both bodies view their party nominating contests as their only significant barrier to re-election. We know that voters who participate in the party nomination selection are a thin slice of the electoral pie, punishing compromise and demanding purity. This is what we call "parliamentary" voting patterns, where party affiliation trumps the individual candidate.
So, who can blame members when they come to Washington and vote with their primary electorates? They behave, as their votes indicate, as if this were a parliamentary system, rather than the balance of powers structure our founders envisioned. This has evolved in such a manner that in Congress the members from the same party as the president have become a mere appendage of the executive branch, protecting their president, slamming the door on investigations and viewing their success as tied to the popularity of their president.
And the minority party no longer views itself as a minority shareholder in our government. It has turned into the "opposition party," filibustering nearly everything in the Senate and making what were once routine votes on confirmations and debt ceilings a default "no" vote – at least until they are able to put the majority party members on the board.
This new status quo has been building for years and efforts to enhance transparency, adopt stricter ethics rules and enhance campaign finance reform do not address the major problems, though some initiatives, such as redistricting reform could help.
Congress has also punted in exercising its authority when any issue of controversy presents itself. Major legislation passed by partisan majorities leave most of the actual legislative changes to the executive branch in the writing of regulations. Even project designations (i.e., earmarks), a congressional prerogative under the "power of the purse," have been delegated to the executive branch.
There is no easy way to reverse this trend, which has been escalating over the past 50 years, but here are a few suggestions that may help.
If Members don't want to raise their own pay, no one cares. (They have not had a salary increase in a decade.) However, they shouldn't put these same restraints on their staff, particularly at the committee level. Staff deals every day with experienced, highly paid lawyers and lobbyists on one end and federal senior executives on the other – all of whom earn more and, on balance, are better trained. The result of this inequity is "brain drain," as intelligent and more experienced congressional staff are moving to K Street to take high-paying jobs with lobbying firms and trade associations. Thus, raising staff pay could help to level the playing field as it would incentivize experienced staff to continue their tenure, offering institutional knowledge and expertise in writing legislation.
Expanding the staff of the Government Accountability Office and Congressional Research Service would enable Congress to enhance its responsibility to provide executive branch oversight and to follow through on some hard research on pending issues.
The GAO has been an underutilized tool that allows Congress to measure the effectiveness of federal programs, contracts and transactions. This highly trained staff of accountants and consultants can serve as unbiased, nonpartisan umpires, assessing the value of executive branch decisions without the partisan charged hoopla that infests many congressional inquiries. At a time when much of the news media has taken sides on various issues and programs, it is critical that Congress employ an honest broker to call the balls and the strikes.
The current GAO staff is a fraction of what it once was and what it could be. When pitted against an executive branch bureaucracy, it is totally mismatched in resources. Restoring and enhancing this investigative tool can do much to restore Congress as a coequal branch of government.
Likewise, the CRS allows individual members access to information and research that can lead to innovation and a solid basis for legislative inquiry. Its staff has also been reduced, which hampers the legislative branch in its aspiration of equality with the executive branch.
Although most "reform" efforts center around campaign finance, ethics, redistricting, etc., they remain highly polarizing issues, as each side views these issues through its own partisan lens, asking how each reform will advantage or disadvantage electoral prospects.
However, hiring and maintaining a professional staff should be appreciated and nurtured by both parties, as it addresses the legislative and oversight process itself. The alternative is for the Congress to continue to atrophy as more power and talent shifts to the executive and judicial branches, or to the private sector. This was not contemplated by the founders and is not beneficial to either party or the American form of government.
- Congress must reclaim its power over the purse - The Fulcrum ›
- This could be the year to recalibrate war making authority - The Fulcrum ›