Congress is once again toying with a government shutdown that can only be avoided by the political maneuvering of a select few leaders in Congress. Year after year, this closed-door legislating process prevents rank-and-file members from asserting their own judgements and articulating their constituents’ concerns. Congress as an institution is in serious disrepair.
However, one person has shown a discerning sense of the trials facing Congress and a vision for how to recover the idea of the legislative branch proposed in Federalist 70; “as best adapted to deliberation and wisdom, and best calculated to conciliate the confidence of the people and to secure their privileges and interests.”
Congressman Mike Gallagher, a Republican representing Wisconsin’s 8th Congressional District, recently penned an op-ed for The Atlantic titled “How to Salvage Congress.”
In his essay, Rep. Gallagher offers three bold reforms that would start Congress back down the path of deliberation and regular order: changing the Congressional calendar, changing how committee chairs are chosen, and streamlining committee jurisdiction. Each reform focuses on a different way to realign the incentive structures in Congress away from what Rep. Gallagher calls being a “team player” and toward a renewed desire to deliberate and legislate.
Rep. Gallagher’s first proposal calls for a change to the Congressional calendar that keeps members in DC longer than the 145 out of 261 work days they spent in session in 2017. When members are slow to arrive and in a rush to leave each week, it is no wonder their attention is devoted to fundraising meetings over the legislative process they were elected to participate in.
Rep. Gallagher’s fix is a better way to manage time and is more fiscally sound. His proposal would require Congress to conduct three five-day work weeks followed by a week in the member’s district. In addition to saving taxpayer money on weekly flights to and from DC, this fix has the all-important benefits of “[facilitating] more time for legislators to legislate” and “[allowing] them to spend more quality time back in their districts.”
The next reform loosens the grip Congressional leadership has on the legislative process. Under the current system, Rep. Gallagher pulls back the curtain on an incentive structure so seedy and borderline-unethical that it’s a surprise such a system has not received 24-hour media scrutiny. According to the congressman, “top-level committee assignments are generally given to top fundraisers, and are themselves coveted for how helpful they are to one’s own fundraising.”
In other words, if you want a committee chairmanship in Congress, you have to do leadership’s bidding and rake in fundraising dollars for the NRCC and DCCC. Members can even have their committee chairmanships stripped for disobeying leadership.
Instead of the pay-to-play system of now which rewards members for being “team players,” Rep. Gallagher proposes that committee members should be able to choose their own chairmen. By severing Congressional leadership’s control over who gets to be a committee chair, committee members themselves are instead free to choose the member among them most passionate and knowledgeable about the committee’s work. This more freewheeling process not only invites but necessitates greater involvement from committee members and makes committee chairs more responsive to individual concerns.
Finally, Rep. Gallagher proposes increasing committee jurisdiction over funding authorizations. It is a common sense proposal that gives the decision of how much money should be spent by a government agency to the corresponding committee instead of the leadership-guided House Appropriations Committee. Rep. Gallagher is quick to point out that the confusing battles between committee chairs and the House Appropriations Committee result in irresponsible spending. The House Appropriations Committee “often appropriates funds to programs that the relevant committees haven’t authorized,” and the room for error grows when committee jurisdiction is in question. Dissolve the House Appropriations Committee, and the devolution of power means that individual committee members now have a chance to debate why their constituents’ tax dollars should or should not be spent.
Unfortunately, Rep. Gallagher’s introspection on the troubles facing Congress also uncovers an uncomfortable truth that “not only is talking about congressional reform as a member of Congress likely to make all [his] colleagues mad; it’s also boring.” While these reforms do not sound as exciting as the latest presidential tweetstorm or verbal gaffe by a member of Congress, it is important for our generation to be particularly sensitive to the price of doing nothing.
In an interview with The Weekly Standard’s Charlie Sykes, Rep. Gallagher drew attention to Congress’s comfort with the status quo, stating that his “fundamental perspective as one of three millennials in the House is that [members of Congress] are collectively punting on some of the bigger generational issues that we have.” Our elected officials’ fear of action is leaving future generations in the lurch. Rep. Gallagher’s fresh perspective on why Congress is broken and how to fix it offers a long-term vision to ensure our generation inherits a legislative branch worthy of its hallowed reputation.