I’ve noticed a recurring question as I talk to people about Congress. What can be done, they wonder, to get Congress back on track? Is our national legislature capable of serious policy making? At a time when polls say that jobs and the economy are Americans’ chief concern, Congress has not passed a single piece of economic legislation. Instead, it’s focused on investigations. It’s an institution with very little to show for its efforts.
There’s a reason for this. Few legislators know how to make it work any more — respect the legislative process and know it intimately, have mastered the substantive and procedural details, and have the political savvy and skill to move a bill to enactment.
How can Congress improve? A few procedural fixes might help, but the real answer is actually pretty simple: change the way members of Congress work.
First, they need to put in more time legislating on the major challenges facing the country. Only twice this year has Congress been in session for four weeks straight. Its members spend too much of each week at home campaigning and meeting with constituents, and don’t use their limited time in Washington well: much of it goes to meeting lobbyists, legislating on minor if not trivial matters, making the rounds of receptions, and raising funds.
Members have few occasions to get to know one another except in the confrontational settings of committee rooms and the floor of their chamber, and as a result they don’t know how to work together. Just as dispiriting, they know even less about what we sent them there to do: crafting and enacting legislation. It takes skill and perseverance to create meaningful policies that forge common ground among competing interests and ideologies. The time-consuming, difficult work of legislating on complex issues is becoming a lost art.