We need an affirmative vision for Congress

Photo credit: Architect of the Capitol

It’s time for an affirmative vision for the institution of Congress.

Congress currently serves as a punchline — an excuse for inaction, a symbol for what’s wrong with Washington.

The refrains have become familiar and ubiquitous: Congress is broken, DC is paralyzed, polarization is choking discourse, Congress abdicates its duties, “we all hate Congress.”

In its current form, though, this thinking has gotten us almost nowhere. Cynicism about Congress pervades our discourse without getting to remedies. Congressional defeatism has become the universal dead end for our government reform reflexes.

While no one is helped by magical thinking about what’s going to pass this Congress, frustration with the current Congress, for some reason, obscures our ability to think about what would define a good Congress.

We need to channel our frustration over Congress, and use our frustration to ask a more fundamental question: What would a strong, representative, effective Congress look like?

This question has been neglected far too long. And most of the thinking about it has been reductive. Congress is understaffed, lacks expertise, is surrounded by lobbyists, captured by moneyed interests, moves too slowly, is reticent to exercise its prerogatives and is cowed by expansive executive power. And its Members spend most of their time asking rich people for money.

These are all problems, and we shouldn’t pretend that solving any one of them will fix all the others.

When we see Congress fail, each failure should become part of a vision for what a modern legislature should be.

It’s not enough to complain about specific policy issues where congressional inaction is ideologically frustrating. We have a responsibility to consider what it means to have a strong representative institution. Through this lens, legislative failures create an outline of what Congress should be.

For example:

  • Congress should have both capacity and expertise proportional to its power and responsibilities.
  • Distinguished careers should point towards congress, not private interests that influence it.
  • Members of Congress should look like the US population, not a slice of wealth and privilege.
  • Congressional activity should infuse our politics with the substance of self-governance.
  • A citizen from any background elected to Congress should have the tools they need to legislate effectively.
  • Congress should empower the public to understand complex procedures and policy issues.
  • Committees and congressional support agencies should represent substantive questions in all their complexity.
  • Congress should defuse extremism, by confronting bad ideas with good ideas in the light of public attention.

This kind of evaluation isn’t being made nearly enough. The design of the institution of Congress takes a backseat to politics (“this Congress” vs. “Congress”), even though the design of Congress helps to set the tone of the politics that populates it.

Congress is cheap, in budgetary terms. A year of Congress costs a few billion dollars. This amount of money is far, far less than that of a single bad decision. The gap between our Congress and the Congress we deserve is enormous. It’s bigger than whatever amount Gingrich cut Congress in the 1990s, and bigger than Boehner’s pay cuts. Congress should be proportional to the needs of American representation. Its current form owes more to historical accident than to conscious design. (Openness clearly plays a huge part in this vision, which is why Sunlight has worked for years on legislative transparency reform. Here are recommendations for the 114th Congress.)

Around the world, legislative power is constantly being reorganized, as committed people use public policy failures to refine representative processes to strengthen their democracies.

We should be doing bigger thinking. We don’t have to accept the Congress we inherit; we should design a Congress that is proportional to the roles we expect it to play.

Sure, “Congress is broken.” But it’s not going to fix itself.