One of Congress’s more self-destructive changes has been the shift in power from the committee system to the party system. It is congressional party leaders and their inner circles that drive the institution, not committee chairs and members. This shift was originally prompted in the 1970s by liberal Democrats seeking to subordinate the power of their conservative southern colleagues, who held a preponderance of committee chairs in the Democratic Congresses of that period due to the seniority system. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich doubled down on this approach when he took over in the 1990s, bypassing seniority in selecting chairs, imposing internal term limits on them, and centralizing power in the leadership. This will make it harder for institutionalists in Congress to check the Trump administration.
Another change familiar to readers of this magazine was the “big lobotomy” that the Gingrich Congress self-administered by reducing professional staff on committees by one-third and squeezing the budgets of the Congressional Research Service and the Government Accountability Office. Undertaken to reduce the size of government, this penny-wise but pound-foolish move has also made it harder for Congress to marshal the expertise it needs to develop legislation and check the executive branch.
This decrease in expertise, plus the increase in partisanship, has led the amount of oversight Congress undertakes to plummet. Oversight has also diminished thanks to a breakdown in “regular order”—where the once-normal processes of recurring authorizations and annual spending bills informed by oversight as a matter of course have been replaced by lapsed authorizations and giant omnibus measures and continuing resolutions that give lawmakers little opportunity or incentive to scrutinize government operations. What oversight that does exist tends to consist of “fire alarm” hearings after catastrophes have occurred, or political theater (think Benghazi) staged to harass or embarrass the other party, rather than “police patrols” done on an ongoing bipartisan basis to monitor and improve public policy.
But is it even conceivable that Republicans would push through reforms that would weaken their own leaders’ powers in favor of committees and buttress congressional capacity by hiring more investigative and other staff? Actually, yes. In fact, momentum has been building toward these outcomes for a while. Paradoxically, members of the House Freedom Caucus, often seen as poster children for congressional dysfunction, are at the forefront of this movement. Representatives Massie, Amash, and South Carolina’s Mark Meadows, charter members of the Freedom Caucus, have been outspoken in calling for the decentralization of power and more committee-based policymaking that gives rank-and-file members opportunities to legislate and conduct oversight. A bicameral network of GOP legislators led by Senator Mike Lee and Texas Representative Jeb Hensarling has also pushed similar ideas in its Article I Project. The animating vision of this plan and the legislative reform proposals coming out of it is to ensure that Congress lives up to its constitutional responsibilities and becomes “the driving force in federal policymaking.”
More than 50 new Senators and more than 260 new Representatives have been elected to “fix Washington” since 2010. What if all the grassroots organizations who spend millions every year flying constituents to Washington had this one priority? And what if there was a bill to do it?
House Concurrent Resolution 169, bipartisan legislation introduced by Reps. Darin LaHood (R-IL) and Daniel Lipinski (D-IL), would create a Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress — a forum for members of the House and Senate to propose their solutions. What better time than the present? Confidence in our institutions, especially Congress, is at an all-time low; petitions to Congress are at all-time high; and the ability of the system to process and respond to these demands is at the breaking point. A non-controversial effort to create a forum for fixing the system is a solution every interest can and should support.
Kevin Kosar co-directs the Legislative Branch Capacity Working Group, a group of scholars and congressional staffers who research congressional capacity. He recently testified this House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee hearing, which considered Congress’s power of the purse. It focused on agencies’ authority to collect money from the public in the form of user fees, fines and the like, and then yp spend it. The president’s FY2017 budget reports the government collected $516 billion from the public this past year. Kosar writes at the R Street blog:
We also discussed a potentially major piece of legislation, H.R. 5499, the Agency Accountability Act of 2016. Rep. Gary J. Palmer, R-Ala., introduced this concise piece of legislation, which would require agencies to turn over fees, fines, penalties and settlement proceeds to the U.S. Treasury, allowing Congress to choose whether to reappropriate them (or not).
A big problem with Congress over the past century is that it frequently has delegated its fundamental powers to the executive branch. That has weakened our separation-of-powers system. Allowing agencies to collect fees and spend them, as I noted in my testimony, is not a new thing. The very first Congress authorized customs officials to pay themselves from the duties they collected from ships using American ports. But the more often Congress allows agencies to do this, the more difficult it becomes to oversee and control the executive branch.
One of the huge takeaways from this hearing is that Congress does not really know which agencies are charging fees, how those fees are set (rarely are the fee levels written into law), and how much freedom agencies have to spend the fees.