A Radical Fix for Washington: Have Congress Do Its Job
If Congress performed more of the tasks assigned to it by the Constitution, it also would feel compelled to act more responsibly

By Gerald F. Seib
May 17, 2018 11:29 a.m. ET

Here’s a simple yet radical thought on how to fix much of what ails Washington: Have Congress do its job.

When attempting to explain the myriad problems that plague the nation’s capital, people talk of partisanship, polarization and a White House in perpetual chaos—and there’s certainly plenty of all that to go around. Yet every one of those problems is exacerbated by the way Congress has abdicated or shirked its duties.

Maybe, just maybe, if Congress accepted and performed more of the tasks assigned to it by the Constitution, it also would feel compelled to act more responsibly—to find the compromise, to overcome the partisanship, to reach the durable solution. Like the young adult who leaves home and suddenly has to live with the consequences of his or her own actions, it would have to start doing the mature thing.

Instead, we often are living with the opposite. For years, Congress has punted its Constitutional responsibilities down Pennsylvania Avenue to the president. It’s often unable to perform its most basic function, which is to pass spending bills, instead resorting to giant catchall spending measures that nobody has read and that leave the executive branch to fill in many policy blanks. In a similar illustration of its problems, a House crippled by intramural feuding on Friday failed to pass a farm bill, another piece of core legislation.

On problem after problem, in other words, Congress has said in effect, “We’re not responsible”—which only liberates it to act irresponsibly.

This is a downward cycle. It’s also one that “perpetuates the idea that the president is supposed to determine what the government does rather than the Congress,” says Republican Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri.

In the Trump era, this has put a lot of responsibility on a president with no policy-making experience or clear ideology to guide him. John Feehery, a longtime Republican congressional staffer, says he predicted that, in the era of Trump, the flow of policy-making would reverse, moving from an inexperienced White House to a Congress in Republican control. “I was wrong,” he says.

Why is this pattern unfortunate for the nation? Solutions hashed out in Congress, through the process of the give-and-take the Founders envisioned, are more durable than a decision made by a presidential team that is, by definition, more transient.

Consider a few examples. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program—the plan to give legal status to “Dreamer” immigrants brought here illegally as children—was created by President Obama because Congress couldn’t manage to come up with an immigration plan that would address their plight. Now, DACA may die under President Trump because Congress can’t manage to answer his pleas to come up with a legally acceptable alternative.

Leaders of both parties in Congress say a plan to improve America’s infrastructure is a top priority, yet in the absence of legislative action it fell to the Trump White House to come up with a plan, which may not even be translated into a bill this year. Without congressional direction, the Obama administration’s Federal Communications Commission promulgated rules to establish net neutrality. Now, the Trump FCC is reversing those. With the horse already out of the barn, the Senate Wednesday voted to reinstate the Obama-era rules, but the measure faces long odds of passage in the House.

The Constitution gives Congress the power to declare war, but lawmakers have abdicated that responsibility to the president. Sens. Tim Kaine, a Democrat, and Bob Corker, a Republican, are trying to claw back some of that power with a bill authorizing specific military actions in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East, but many of their colleagues are happier to duck the question. The Constitution also expressly gives Congress the power to regulate commerce with foreign nations, yet Congress is largely reacting to White House trade initiatives: Lawmakers fearful of a trade war with China are pleading their case from the sidelines, while those in favor of retaining the North American Free Trade Agreement are plotting ways they might block a Trump administration decision to withdraw.

This limited congressional impact is hardly new. “From my standpoint, the crisis in American democracy didn’t begin with Donald Trump, ” says Ira Shapiro, a former top Democratic staffer on Capitol Hill who has written a book entitled “Broken: Can the Senate Save Itself and the Country?” He adds: “We’ve been going down for a long time. Probably 25 years.”

Let’s imagine an alternative universe in which Congress bellies up to the bar and actually resolves the tough issues. The compromises American voters always say they want would have to be found. Heck, consensus might even emerge from time to time. There would be far more instances in which both parties have a stake in the outcome of a policy debate, and in making the solution work out. If both parties had a stake in the Obamacare health bill, or in the big tax cut Congress did manage to pass last year, they would have a reason to work out the inevitable kinks that have emerged in both programs as they were rolled out.

For years, Congress has punted its Constitutional responsibilities.
For years, Congress has punted its Constitutional responsibilities. PHOTO: WIN MCNAMEE/GETTY IMAGES

It can happen. Republicans did dust off a little-used law, the Congressional Review Act, to undo Obama-era regulations, which is one assertion of power, though that act is being used with the votes of only one party. Sen. Blunt cites another example: When he and a Democratic colleague, Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware, were unhappy with the Obama administration for cutting funding for the Victims of Child Abuse Act, they rallied a bipartisan majority to restore it.

So why isn’t this kind of action more frequent? The basic problem is that Congress has slipped into what Norman Ornstein, a congressional analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, calls political “tribalism,” in which lawmakers, like Americans more broadly, identify most strongly not with the institution of Congress but with ideological subsets of their parties. Today, he argues, that trend is exacerbated by a majority Republican party with a “virulently anti-government” sector that finds “no” the most comfortable answer to most legislative questions.

What’s the solution? There are procedural fixes. Congressional leaders could let more power devolve to the committees where durable compromises are more likely to be found. If lawmakers stuck to their own budget procedures, passing bills authorizing government programs in detail followed by individual appropriations bills that governed actual disbursement of funds, Capitol Hill would reclaim some of the control over federal funds. Allowing a return to the practice of “earmarks,” in which lawmakers can require funding be directed to specific projects important to their districts, would give lawmakers new incentives to reach compromises on legislation—and give them ammunition to justify compromises to voters back home who can see how they benefit.

An end to gerrymandering, which puts House members in safe districts where they don’t need to woo voters from the other party, would create more action in the political center. Mr. Shapiro suggests that the Senate adjust its rules to prevent the use of “fake” filibusters, in which Senators can stop action merely by threatening to mount a filibuster. And he proposes ending the Senate practice of allowing a “hold,” in which a single Senator can halt consideration of a bill or nomination.

But much of the answer lies in leadership and political courage. Without that, there is no telling how far downward the system might slip. You now have Democrats seriously discussing the possibility that, if they win back control of the Senate, they will refuse to confirm any new Supreme Court justices if openings occur in the last two years of the Trump term, just as Republicans refused to confirm a Supreme Court nominee in the last year of the Obama term. At that point, the term “paralysis,” now thrown around loosely, actually will apply.

Write to Gerald F. Seib at jerry.seib@wsj.com


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