Last month, the 117th Congress arrived in Washington with many new faces and new ideas for government. More than five dozen new members entered the Chamber and the Senate. Only a handful of them, such as the Republican Rep. Cynthia Lummis, have previous experience in Congress.
These newcomers to Capitol Hill have made many promises on the campaign trail, and they are eager to show voters that they can get things done. They want to write legislation, supervise hearings, and debate issues that are important to their constituents at home.
Unfortunately, their dreams of getting things done will quickly become frustrated. Why? Clearly, the madness of January 6 and the impeachment drama that followed were intensely disruptive. No member of the House or Senate intended to spend time dealing with traumatized staff, responding to voters and colleagues who wanted to know what to do, and crushing media requests.
There is also a new president, who wants Congress to pass a massive and controversial COVID-19 bill – pronto. And the Democratic leaders of both houses have their own priorities, including H.R. 1, the nearly 800-page bill that would revive the US election and more. The Senate, for its part, will also more than need to review and confirm 300 individuals who will be nominated for cabinet positions by President Biden.
But the bigger problem is that they came to Congress with a misconception: that they should be allowed and empowered to rule. That's not the way Congress works today. The newly arrived lawmaker is soon faced with a few basic requirements: raising money for re-election; obey the party leadership; and don't fraternize with members of the other party.
After weeks of delay, new members are finally taking place in committees and sub-committees whose first task will be to adopts the committee's regulations with little input from minority legislators. Thereafter, each committee chair will hold a televised hearing on a topic that the House Speaker and Senate Leader will consider useful for raising funds and building a good media story. Just then it is when the junior legislature begins to seriously wonder, "When may I rule?"
What new lawmakers need to know is that it doesn't have to be that way. This current, top-down congressional arrangement, rabidly partisan – with most lawmakers relegated to a role resembling a court eunuch – is a historically peculiar and relatively recent development.
It is not very long ago that power in Congress was divided between the leaders and the committees. Newly arrived lawmakers could learn the trade of policymaking, supervision and negotiation by toiling in committees. They could approach committee chairmen to ask for it funds to help their constituents at home – be it paving a crumbling road, dredging a silted harbor or sprucing up a local attraction to attract more tourists.
As late as the early 1990s, the newly arrived legislature would have enough personal staff to answer the relentless requests of voters seeking help and representatives of advocacy groups knocking at their offices to talk. They were also able to immediately receive impartial, expert advice and analysis from the legion officials at legislative support agencies such as the Congressional Research Service.
Not anymore. Congress began to reduce its capacity about 25 years ago, despite the fact that the administration was getting bigger and more complex, and despite every legislature representing 750,000 voters average. Today has Congress fewer executives and less support staff than in the 1980s, and the internal organization and rules are poorly designed to meet the challenges of governance. Ten years ago, in a fit of self-righteous pique, both sides renounced earmarks, which deprived most lawmakers of the power to solve problems in their districts and states. (The big dogs in both chambers retained their power to direct expenditure.)
The good news is that newly arrived members do not need to shrug or tolerate this situation. The constitution allows Congress to structure and fund itself as it sees fit. Congress has reformed itself before and it can reform itself again.
Freshmen must demand that they be empowered to govern. They can work with the Select the Congress Modernization Committee, which has made upgrades in the House of Representatives. They can approach the legislature's credit subcommittees and ask for more funds, better technology and other changes to enable lawmakers to better serve the voters who pay their salaries. They can also meet and form Article I caucuses who will negotiate upgrades with chamber leaders.
Newly-arrived lawmakers have an inherent interest in making Congress work better for them and the country. With the public approval rating of Congress fluctuating around 25%, they can say that the normal course of events has not worked. Seldom in the life of an elected official do self-interest and the common good coincide so neatly. New lawmakers must seize the opportunity to be changemakers.
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