Future prospects for Congress
Congress is not in good shape: expansion in the role of government and expansion of presidential power; the capacity for legislative action (mixed) and the reduction in congressional autonomy; the increase in plebiscitary politics and the subversion of Congress’s role in the American political system.
Other recent trends: the heightened scope and stakes of politics, the preeminence of the president in the party system and national consciousness, the rise of candidate-centered politics, the revolutionary changes in travel and communication.
Constant themes: seeking credit claiming, advertising, position taking at the expense of substance, sacrificing congressional prerogatives for party or policy gain, evading responsibility, exploiting public distrust for personal or partisan advantage (running for Congress by running against Congress). More incentives for such behavior recently.
All of this makes reform difficult because it is inherent in the political system.
Context of reform
Two reasons not to do anything – if it is just responses to short term factors involving Congress or the external world, or are the problems more systemic and can’t be addressed without a fundamental change in the nature of our government. Do you agree with either of these views?
The public: what do people want from Congress? John Hibbing: distinction between Congress as an institution, as a collection of individuals, and as your specific member of Congress. Linked to more general patterns of trust in government and in other institutions.
Context, public approval, cont.
Political knowledge is negatively related to support and being a conservative was positively related when Repub-licans were in control, now higher support from liberals. Also, approval of recent policies is positively related (reverse causation?), and those who see little value in debate and compromise are less supportive of Congress.
People don’t like conflict – blame it on parties. Interest groups are trusted even less. Previous pressure for reform came from inside the institution rather than from outside (exception was the 1993 reform committee – response to the check-bouncing and an all-time low, to that point, in public approval of Congress: 17% in 1992).
What type of changes are most likely and least likely to have an impact?
Self-inflicted damage: the congressional “Hall of Shame”
Abscam, 1980-81. FBI sting operation yielded convictions of one senator and five House members. Controversy about entrapment.
House banking scandal – “rubber checks.” Involved 450 members and was really a cooked-up scandal. No laws were broken, yet many members of Congress were defeated because of the publicity.
“Members gone wild” – James “Beam Me Up” Traficant (expelled in 2002, released from jail in Sept., 2009), William Jefferson $90,000 in ziplock bags (defeated in 2008, currently in jail), and Duke Cunningham, $2.4 million in bribes (resigned in 2005, currently in jail).
Congressional “Hall of Shame,” cont.
Jack Abramoff scandal. Bob Ney and Tom DeLay were brought down. Many levels of corruption in this scandal.
Level of corruption? 14,005,615 arrests in 2008 out of about 225 million adults (6.3%), which would translate into about 34 members of Congress getting arrested every year. Even compared to “white collar crime” more generally, Congress is probably relatively crime-free.
Individual “bad apples” vs. systemic problems (lobbying, ethics process, earmarks, etc.).
Context of reform
Internal issues – “quality of life” concerns in Congress. Work schedule, fundraising, family considerations, difficulty of being in the minority party (and increased partisanship more generally). Difficult to address some of these issues without making public image even worse: lighten the work schedule, make it more “family friendly,” voters will see them as more “out of touch.”
External issues – relations with the President (divided government), state of the economy and budget deficits (more difficult to act when responsible policy making means imposing painful cuts or raising taxes).
Context of reform, cont.
Tradeoff between responsiveness and responsibility. Impossible to simultaneously maximize the potential for both. Issues that would address the quality of life issues would make it less responsive (and more responsible), such as insulating Congress from outside pressures. Others, such as strengthening the leadership would make it more responsible, but further undermine comity.
Unintended consequences – 1974 FECA produced PACs and soft money and contributed to the incumbency advantage. 1995 reforms, terms limits on chairs, led to the retirement of key Republican leaders. McCain/Feingold: rise of 527s and third-party ads. Earmark reform and the response of “soft earmarks.”
Reform options: campaign finance
Campaign finance reform. Reduce time spent on raising money and strengthen the common bonds that tie members of Congress together. Also would increase competition and provide more accountability, so it could potentially have some impact on responsiveness and responsibility. However, public financing, the only option that would really make a difference, isn’t politically feasible.
Other more incremental steps? Federal tax credit to encourage more small contributions. Bruce Ackerman’s proposal for anonymous contributions. Would it work?
Reform options: insulate Congress
Weaken the traceability chain – insulate Congress from outside forces and allow them to make tough decisions. An unintended consequence of the “sunshine laws” of the 1970s was to give interest groups more power. Omnibus legislation, closed rules, delegation of authority to the other branches of government, executive summits, fast-track provisions, bipartisan commissions, and greater secrecy. Problems with these?
Examples of success: closing military bases,1986 tax reform (the Gucci Boys). Watergate vs. Clinton impeachment. Former was much more behind closed doors.
Also can be used for things that are not necessarily in the public’s interest, but in the collective interest of members of Congress, such as pay raises. Downside: lack of accountability and transfer of power to other institutions.
Reform Options: Deliberation
Enhancing deliberation in Congress
– Oxford style debates
– Restoring “regular order.” More committee autonomy (with regular hearings, open markups, and real oversight), bring back the conference committee, limit holds in the Senate (especially on nominations), and restore the filibuster to its original function – as a protection of minority rights on important legislation. Also motion to recommit in the House.
– More time to examine legislation (ideally 72 hours, at least).
– 20 minutes for recorded votes (do not hold open).
Reform options: oversight
Oversight of the executive branch during unified government? How can this be done? Especially important in the areas of national security and foreign policy. Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission: 1) intelligence oversight should be vested in either a joint House-Senate committee or in combined authorization/ appropriations intelligence panels in each chamber; 2) Congress should consolidate oversight of the Department of Homeland Security in a single committee in each chamber rather than having oversight scattered among many committees in each chamber.
Reform options: oversight, cont.
Bringing back the reauthorization stage.
More oversight during the appropriations process. Serious oversight is needed every two years.
Need to restore bipartisanship on key oversight committees such as Intelligence and Appropriations. This would help avoid oversight failures such as those that occurred in the buildup to the Iraq war. Didn’t ask enough question about how much it would cost, the pre-war claims of WMDs, and wasteful spending during the war.
Reform options: restoring public confidence
Public education. Need a specific kind of information about how Congress works: compromise and partisan politics are not bad things. Civic journalism and the Internet provide opportunities for reaching the public.
Lobbying reform: more limitations on the “revolving door,” more disclosure of contact and campaign contributions by lobbyists. One proposal would be to forgive student loans for people who agree to work in Congress for at least five years and then not become a lobbyist for a minimum of five years after they leave Congress. However, there are limits here on what is desirable: Wisconsin open records case and the NRA.
Reform options: restoring public confidence
Ethics reform: Congress established independent non-partisan ethics commission to handle some cases (the Office of Congressional Ethics); just now is getting up and running.
Earmarks – good first steps (more transparency and reporting), but more needed (conflicts of interest).
Bring back fiscal discipline and the “pay-as-you-go” budgeting rule (the Democrats did reinstate this rule in 2007, but it is routinely ignored).
Leadership PACs and fundraising. Abolish leadership PACs and prohibit fundraising while Congress is in session (many state legislatures already do this). Pros and cons of these ideas?
Reforms that probably are not good ideas
Term limits. Arguments for: bring new blood into the system. Make politicians less beholden to special interests and more accountable to the people. Against: will transfer power to the “permanent government” (bureaucracy and interest groups), we lose a great deal of expertise and leadership, undermines voter autonomy. Would require a constitutional amendment because SC struck down term limits in 1995 (U.S. Term Limits v. Thornton). Also allowed to stand a state SC ruling that Arkansas’s “scarlet letter law” on term limits was unconstitutional (Donovan v. Priest, 1997).
Mandatory retirement age instead? Would also be unconstitutional (would need an amendment).
Reforms that probably are not good ideas
Balanced budget amendment. A blunt instrument that could damage the economy during recession (however, provisions could be put in place to allow exceptions during recessions). Pay-as-you-go budgeting rules can accomplish the same goal without amending the Constitution (if they are firm).
This probably will become an issue again because of the exploding budget deficits.
What is the future of minority-majority districts? What is the best course of action here? Should majority-minority districts be encouraged when possible, or are “influence districts” more desirable? Need to disentangle the partisan and racial dimensions of these questions.
NAMUDNO case and the future of Section 5.
Future direction for the parties: Repubs.
Debate within the Republican party in Congress after their success in the midterms.
– Do Rs need to get back to their conservative roots and not compromise with Dems?
– Or, must have room for moderates if Rs are going to become the majority party again. Compromise is necessary, from this view, now that Rs control the House.
– Demographics are not in their favor: young voters and Latinos. Need to move away from moral issues, especially gay marriage, to broaden the party’s appeal.
Future direction for the parties: Dems.
How to recover from 2010? Try to cut deals with the Rs like the tax package? Or stick to their guns with a more liberal agenda and fight it out in 2012?
Everything depends on how the economy will respond. Dems are hoping it is like 1982-84.