There's Still Much Room For Improvement In Congress

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Tuesday, June 26, 2007
In the run-up to last year's elections, critics of the House of Representatives and its leadership articulated three broad concerns. 

First, they believed Congress had abandoned its constitutionally mandated role overseeing the conduct of the Executive Branch. 

Second, they contended the GOP leadership had allowed lobbyists and their money to become too powerful. 

Third, they condemned the majority for trampling on the right of the Democratic minority to offer meaningful alternatives in legislation and debate. 

Now, as we approach the mid-point of the Democrats' first year back in control, it seems an apt moment to gauge how well the new majority is performing on all three fronts. 

The short answer is: some improvement, but still only fair. 

While the House has once again become a force on oversight and made some progress on lobbying and ethics reform, it's still got a long way to go in restoring balance to its internal procedures. 

Oversight: If you've been keeping up with the news, you know that Congress has already significantly expanded its oversight of the Executive Branch — on everything from the Iraq War to its hearings on the U.S. attorney firings. It is holding the White House and Cabinet officials accountable for their actions and decisions, and as a result enhancing Americans' ability to judge their government's actions. 

This is a vital improvement to our democracy, which does not function well if those in power go unquestioned. 

Lobbying: The House has also moved productively — though not as thoroughly as it ought to have done — on lobbying reform. The Abramoff scandals and corruption charges against several former members of Congress not only brought the institution itself into disrepute, they also sapped Americans' trust that the system could function fairly on behalf of ordinary citizens. Democrats' promises of full-scale ethics reform were key to their win last fall. 

The lobby reform bill passed recently by the House is certainly an improvement, but it hardly knocks the ball out of the park. The House failed to create an independent office to investigate allegations of ethical improprieties; it also watered down a proposal that was in the initial version of the bill requiring that two years pass before a retiring House member be allowed to lobby his or her former colleagues. 

And though it did require disclosure of lobbyists' "bundling" of campaign contributions, that measure will undoubtedly face a stiff headwind in the House-Senate conference on the bill. 

So while the House may be moving in the right direction on ethics issues, it has not yet lived up to Americans' expectations of a complete turnaround from what came before. 

Fair procedures: The Democratic majority, which controls the terms of debate and sets the parameters for considering legislation on the floor, often seems to forget how damaging mistreatment of the minority can be. It has sent far too many bills to the floor without allowing amendments, it has toyed with some of the most egregious of the previous Republican majority's violation of House norms — such as holding open floor votes beyond the normal time limit so that the leadership can twist arms — and most recently it considered changing the rules to disallow the so-called "motion to recommit," one of the few tools the House minority can use to get its point across. 

Internal procedures can seem like unbearably arcane issues, of little import to most Americans. Nothing could be further from the truth. The goal in the House — the most representative institution our nation possesses — is to create a process that is fair and that allows the nation's business to be done, while also letting the minority present an alternative policy, have it debated fully, and then see it voted up or down. The way the majority uses the rules is a basic test of that fairness; if it quashes the minority's ability ever to have its alternatives heard, it flunks. 

Now, the House minority bears a share of responsibility, too. If its members are constantly playing little games to score political points, rather than developing serious policy alternatives, then it, too, shares the blame for undercutting the civility and fairness necessary for the House to work. 

As congressional scholar Norman Ornstein put it not long ago, "If the minority uses the opportunity to offer amendments to exploit cynically the opening for political purposes...it soon will lose its moral high ground for objecting to majority restrictions on debate and amendments." So far, neither Democrats nor Republicans have covered themselves with glory on this front. 

The House ought to be a beacon of open, deliberative and thoroughgoing debate, an institution that truly represents the diversity and fair-minded decency of ordinary Americans. Let us encourage our representatives to make Congress an institution we can all point to with pride. 

(Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.)