Now that the House’s modernization panel is extended, it has a lot more work to do
Strand is president of the Congressional Institute, a nonprofit that seeks to help members of Congress better serve their constituents and their constituents better understand Congress. He testified before the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress in March.
As the House of Representatives marches toward a partisan impeachment, the American public can be forgiven for missing a bright spot of productive bipartisanship: the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress. After an encouraging year of bipartisan committee work, the House voted last week to extend the panel for a year.
This committee has made 29 unanimous recommendations to improve technology, transparency, accessibility and constituent engagement as well as provide better support for staff. Twenty-nine unanimous recommendations. And these aren't boiler plate measures like "The House should have more transparency." They are well thought-out solutions that can be taken up by committees of jurisdiction, such as allowing new members to hire a transition staffer, promoting civility during new-member orientation, streamlining bill writing and finalizing a system to easily track how amendments would alter legislation and impact current law.
The committee's members wanted to be part of this work. They understand how important it is for the House to catch up with modern times. There's still a lot of work to do, though, which is why it's great they will be able to continue through the end of 2020.
The success so far is due to the panel's bipartisan nature. The six members from each party, led by Democratic Chairman Derek Kilmer of Washington and GOP Vice Chairman Tom Graves of Georgia, have spent countless hours meeting with each other, their colleagues and outside groups that are focused on various aspects of federal modernization.
The Congressional Institute is one of those groups. For several years, we have advocated for reforming Congress to make it effective. Few would say Congress is working as well as it should. Partisan gridlock certainly plays an enormous role in this, but there are institutional changes that have nothing to do with politics that will help modernize both the House and the Senate.
We have looked at a number of issues including fixing the authorization process to restore checks and balances, instituting biennial budgeting, changing the start of the federal fiscal year from Oct. 1 to Jan. 1, and even restoring earmarks both as a legislative tool and to shift funding decisions from the executive branch back to the legislative branch — where the Constitution says they belong.
For years, Congress has fallen short of its budget responsibility. The process has become a farce with continuing resolutions — which are supposed to act as short-term patches allowing the government to run while Congress continues debate — acting as budgeting tools. The 35-day shutdown that ended in January should be all the evidence and incentive lawmakers need to reform that process.
It has been 25 years since the last time Congress completed a budget on time — meaning the 12 separate bills designed to provide funding for all discretionary programs were passed and signed by the start of the fiscal year. Since then, CRs and catchall spending packages have become chronic, and have come to be seen as an acceptable way of doing business.
Except that it's not.
Deviations from the intended appropriations mechanisms have greatly reduced Congress' role in shaping the budget and eroded its responsibility to conduct proper oversight. As the budget process has broken down, the authority to negotiate with the White House shifted to Hill leaders, giving administration officials little incentive to engage with committee chairmen.
As Congress ceded its position as a co-equal in the budget process, it also drifted away from authorizations and appropriations as a regular course of business. Congress enacted about $310 billion in unauthorized appropriations four years ago, according to the Congressional Budget Office — about one-third of all discretionary funding. The amount has grown precipitously since 1985, when the CBO began keeping track of money allocated to programs not actually authorized by Congress.
The way to stop this from happening is to revive the authorization process by giving power back to the committees assigned to write that sort if legislation.
It's also time to consider a two-year budget cycle as a way to give lawmakers more time to do their work. Biennial budgeting can reduce the impact of politics on the process. And focusing on authorizing in one year, and spending in the next, would help members better and more effectively focus on both their tasks.
Fixing the budget and getting spending under control are hardly the only targets for reform.
Public approval for Congress is near the record low. Too many Americans feel their legislators aren't listening to them and aren't looking out for their best interests. Helping members more effectively engage with the people they were elected to represent will show the public that lawmakers do care. Those of us who worked on Capitol Hill know this to be true.
Opening up the legislative process to more amendments on the House floor would give members incentives to participate rather than feeling like spectators.
In March, the Modernization Committee set aside a day where 32 House members testified and another three provided written comments. What they talked about included the unpredictable nature of the congressional schedule, challenges setting up district offices for new members, antiquated technology, and staffing capacity and workforce concerns.
Members are clearly concerned for the future of Congress. These are not partisan or political concerns. In fact, that's one reason the committee has been successful: It has been careful to avoid political considerations. It is working hard to make smart, common-sense recommendations that can be turned into legislative proposals, although maybe not all right away. Hopefully a few years from now someone will still say: "The Kilmer-Graves committee had this great idea; let's adopt it."
That's why it's so important that the House voted to let the committee continue. It's refreshing to see members of the two parties work together. They have earned the respect of their colleagues. They, and many outside groups that are advocating to make Congress effective, look forward to what the Modernization Committee accomplishes next year.
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In a partisan vote on an issue that once was bipartisan, House Democrats pushed through legislation Friday that would restore a key portion of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
The Voting Rights Advancement Act passed the House 228-187, with all Democrats voting for the bill and all but one Republican, Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, voting against it.
The bill faces virtually no chance of being considered in the Republican-controlled Senate.
Broadcasters are pushing back against the Federal Communications Commission after the agency made clear it wants broader public disclosure regarding TV political ads.
With the 2020 election less than a year away and political TV ads running more frequently, the FCC issued a lengthy order to clear up any ambiguities licensees of TV stations had regarding their responsibility to record information about ad content and sponsorship. In response, a dozen broadcasting stations sent a petition to the agency, asking it to consider a more narrow interpretation of the law.
This dispute over disclosure rules for TV ads comes at a time when digital ads are subject to little regulation. Efforts to apply the same rules for TV, radio and print advertising across the internet have been stymied by Congress's partisanship and the Federal Election Commission being effectively out of commission.
Laura Williamson says her career was shaped by growing up in North Carolina, which she describes as being historically at the center of the best and worst of American democracy. She spent seven years working with young people at progressive groups and got a master's in public affairs at Princeton before joining Demos in the summer of 2018. The think tank aims to combat "threats to democracy, racial equity and economic inclusion" and as a senior policy analyst she's focused on voter registration, voting rights, money in politics and civic participation. Her answers have been lightly edited for clarity and length.
What's democracy's biggest challenge, in 10 words or less?
Abolishing all disenfranchisement schemes and achieving an inclusive, multiracial democracy.
Describe your very first civic engagement.
Testifying at the North Carolina General Assembly against cuts to funding for vocational education. The woodworking classes I took throughout high school were among the most formative of my public school education, so as a high school senior I advocated for their continued funding to lawmakers in Raleigh.
What was your biggest professional triumph?
It's actually a triumph-in-progress. At Demos, we are privileged to work with powerful grassroots leaders redefining democracy and pushing the reform conversation across the country. Alongside these Inclusive Democracy Project leaders we are dreaming and scheming about what it would take to build a truly inclusive democracy — without limiting ourselves by what's perceived as politically feasible or reasonable — and to chart a radical reform agenda that meets the challenge. Our agenda is in progress and, like all real victories, is benefitting from the efforts of many smart and talented people. Stay tuned, it'll be ready for public consumption soon!
And your most disappointing setback?
They have always come after I've not listened well enough, have brought too much ego and taken things too personally, or not followed my gut about when a process or decision felt off.
How does your identity influence the way you go about your work?
I'm from North Carolina, where we pioneered multiracial, pro-justice fusion politics during Reconstruction, civil disobedience during the civil rights movement and franchise-expanding voting reforms since the 1990s. More recently, we have also been home to the vanguard of voter suppression and other democracy stifling tactics since the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act. I stand on the shoulders of giants and against the abdication of our identity as democracy leaders. I also do this work because, as a white woman, I know the exclusion of entire communities from our democracy was — and is still — led by my people and, often, in my name. I work every day to undo that legacy and ongoing reality.
What's the best advice you've ever been given?
Learn to simultaneously practice patience and show up with urgency in all the work I do.
Create a new flavor for Ben & Jerry's.
Impeaches and Cream
West Wing or Veep?
West Wing — for the sometimes-too-earnest belief that government can be a force for good, not the centrist politics!
What's the last thing you do on your phone at night?
Turn on do not disturb.
What is your deepest, darkest secret?
I'm deeply terrified by karaoke.
Lightman is a professor of digital media and marketing at Carnegie Mellon University.
With the 2020 election less than a year away, Facebook is under fire from presidential candidates, lawmakers, civil rights groups and even its own employees to provide more transparency on political ads and potentially stop running them altogether.
Meanwhile, Twitter has announced that it will not allow any political ads on its platform.
Modern-day online ads use sophisticated tools to promote political agendas with a high degree of specificity.
I have closely studied how information propagates through social channels and its impact on political messaging and advertising.
Looking back at the history of mass media and political ads in the national narrative, I think it's important to focus on how TV advertising, which is monitored by the Federal Communications Commission, differs fundamentally with the world of social media.