What Congress Needs to Know

By Rothenberg, Stuart | State Legislatures, September 1993 | Go to article overview

What Congress Needs to Know


Rothenberg, Stuart, State Legislatures


For at least the ninth time in the past 50 years the Congress of the United States is engaged in a process of intense self-criticism. Some of those earlier efforts to improve the legislative process ultimately led to major reorganization and new procedures, but many of the problems now being addressed were created by previous reforms.

Every political scientist, journalist and member of Congress has his or her own list of the institution's ills, but all agree that excessive fragmentation, poor scheduling and increased political posturing at the expense of serious debate have crippled the legislative process and shaken the public's faith.

"I've been associated with many public and private organizations," says Congressman Paul Gillmor, who served 22 years in the Ohio Legislature, six of them as president of the Senate, "and the U.S. House is the worst run entity I've ever seen."

If Congress is searching for proven solutions to its seemingly intractable problems, it might consider the experiences of the 50 state legislatures. These laboratories" for experimentation, as Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once called them, have grappled with--and frequently overcome--many of the same procedural problems that today plague Congress.

The Leadership Vacuum

At the end of the first decade of this century, members of the U.S. House of Representatives rebelled against the dictatorial authority of Speaker Joe Cannon, stripping him and his successor, Champ Clark, of many of their formal powers. Today, most observers of Congress agree that the diffusion of power in the House of Representatives, encouraged by reforms adopted during the 1970s, is one of the main causes of the body's inefficiency and legislative paralysis.

As committees and subcommittees carved out their own niches, and individual members looked less to their party caucuses for their political marching orders and more to interest groups and local constituents, party leaders in both houses of Congress have found it increasingly difficult to enact a coherent agenda.

The experience of state legislatures suggests that Congress could redress that chaos and fragmentation by enhancing the powers of its formal leaders-including the speaker of the House and the majority leaders. Strong leaders translate into agenda-setting and party discipline, creating an institution that knows where it is going and how to get there.

Many state legislative presiding officers have the authority to appoint and, remove committee chairmen, refer bills and unilaterally manage their chambers. That makes them more powerful than the leaders of Congress. Not surprisingly, their legislatures are often more responsive and productive than Congress.

Congressman Ben Cardin, who served eight years as speaker of the Maryland House, thinks Washington could take a lesson from the states. "In Congress, committee chairmen get their position from seniority, so they have little structural loyalty to party leadership or to the institution. Congress gives individual members too much freedom. In the states, which give more power to their legislative leaders, legislators take great pride in the institution's overall product."

Committees

Weak institutional leadership at the very top, however, is only one aspect of Congress's growing decentralization. More than 100 years ago, in 1885, Woodrow Wilson wrote, "The House has as many leaders as there are subjects of legislation." But even Wilson would be shocked by the explosion of committees and subcommittees and by the multiple referrals in today's Congress.

In the 103rd Congress, there are 251 standing Select, special and joint committees and subcommittees accounting for about 4,100 seats, according to University of Maryland political scientist Roger Davidson. Davidson has calculated that the average U.S. representative sits on two committees and four subcommittees, and the average senator sits on 11 committees and subcommittees. …

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