Las Vegas Sun

March 20, 2019

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Q&A: Expert describes why Congress is ‘broken’

Molly Reynolds

Molly Reynolds

As shown by dismal approval ratings — an anemic 15 percent in the most recent Gallup poll — Americans have a low opinion of Congress.

That disdain is justified, says Molly Reynolds. Reynolds, a Brookings Institution expert on the federal legislative branch, says party polarization and take-no-prisoners political gamesmanship have plunged Congress into dysfunction.

During a visit last week to UNLV, where she gave a presentation examining why state governors have broken with their national party on Obamacare and other issues, Reynolds sat down with the Sun to discuss her research on Congress. Edited excerpts of the interview follow:

You’ve described Congress as “broken.” Why did you choose that term?

The No. 1 reason I described it that way is that Congress is not solving the problems before it that have real consequences for the American people. So they’re both not solving the problems and they’re not in many cases fulfilling their basic responsibilities.

I do a lot of work on the budget and the appropriations process, and we could spend the whole time here talking about the ways in which that is broken. But we regularly see Congress fail to complete appropriations bills before the start of the new fiscal year.

Congress now also regularly chooses not to work on a budget resolution, which is kind of the high-level blueprint for spending and revenue for a given year.

This year, for example, it appears they’re not going to do that. There are ways to get around it.

When you say Congress isn’t solving problems, what issues do you have in mind?

Things where there’s pretty broad public consensus on wanting some kind of action, and Congress in many cases just kind of can’t get out of its own way to do that.

I think immigration’s a really great example of that. Gun control legislation as well. And I think the opioid epidemic is another instance where Congress hasn’t been terribly successful at taking action.

What caused things to get to this level?

A couple of things, but one thing that I really try to push people on is the degree to which what happens in Congress now has to bear a lot of political conflict in the system.

This is really influenced by my work the appropriations process. Even when we see those spending bills come to the floor on something that looks like the schedule that they’re supposed to, all of a sudden there are a whole lot of controversial amendments that both sides are offering to them.

And then the leadership has to decide, do we keep this on the floor and make our members make tough votes, or do we pull them from the floor, which makes it harder to get the process done?

If Congress were working on more things, they’d have more outlets for that kind of political conflict. But as the congressional agenda gets smaller and smaller, each thing that they do has to bear so much more of the conflict.

The government shutdown in January was a great example of this. Here was this bill that needed to pass to keep the government running, but because members saw it as one of the few things that was going to happen, it became a really attractive place to have this fight over DACA.

Again, there’s broad public consensus on wanting some kind of action on the issue, and there’s even some bipartisan consensus in Congress on doing something. There’s division on what exactly should be done, but there are people on both sides of the aisle who generally wanted to see something happen.

But we got to the point where, because this spending bill was the thing that was moving, it became the target for something else that was unrelated.

So on a sort of micro level, that’s how I understand the dysfunction.

On a more macro level, I think so much of it is just about polarization and the degree to which at this point Democrats and Republicans are very far apart in Congress. And that makes it really hard to build any kind of consensus across the aisle, particularly in the Senate, where to do most things you need 60 votes to clear the threat of a filibuster.

Because the two parties are so polarized, particularly in the Senate, you get to the point where if you’re the Republicans right now, you’ve got 51 votes and you need nine Democrats. But anything that’s going to unite Democrats in a really polarized environment might actually get you 20 Democrats. So building that small coalition is harder to do when the two parties are so polarized. You end up with a situation where things tend to happen on a large bipartisan basis because there aren’t a lot of things out there that will get you (Joe) Mansion and (Claire) McCaskill and those more moderate Senate Democrats.

Why is the agenda shrinking?

I’ll talk mainly about the Senate here, because the House still tends to pass a lot of items — even things they know are dead on arrival in the Senate.

So for example, this week we’re going to see the House take up a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution. Not only is that quite possibly dead on arrival in the Senate, but it would never clear all the hurdles necessary to actually get into the Constitution. (Editor’s note: The House took up the proposed amendment on Thursday. It failed to advance.)

But House Republicans, who have the majority — and because in the House, the majority party has a much greater ability to do what it wants — they see political value in doing those things both for electoral messaging and as signals to interest groups that they care about the same things those groups care about.

But in the Senate, the narrowing of the agenda is happening in part because both members and leaders don’t really want to take tough votes.

You’ll hear senators say, “I came to Washington to take tough votes and do the people’s work,” but at the end of the day, they’d prefer to not do that.

Part of it is also the degree to which now, because everything needs to clear the threat of a filibuster in the Senate, the Senate’s sort of in this rhythm where the majority party decides it wants to bring something up and then instead of having an open debate on that bill, the majority leader will take certain procedural steps to pause the whole process and then have off-the-floor negotiations where they figure out, “Are we going to get to offer any amendments?” That sort of thing.

I think a lot of that is political. Over time, we’ve seen this in large part by members of the minority party who don’t have a lot of other ways to influence the legislative process, so they threaten to take things hostage in order to try to get their amendments offered and try to get a chance to have legislative input.

And the result of all of this is there’s a narrower set of items being considered on the floor.

The other thing I’ll add is that because the current Senate is spending so much of its time dealing with nominations that that has become a real focus of the agenda. Because those you can get done without 60 votes because of the decision by Democrats in 2013 to invoke the nuclear option.

Do you see Congress tackling any major issues from now until the midterm election?

I don’t. I’m not at all optimistic that they’ll do much of anything.

First, in the Senate in particular, the Senate has all of these nominations that can and will occupy its time.

Second, the closer we get to the election, the less interest members will have in taking tough votes, which, as I said before, is not something they particularly want to do anyway. They’ll also want to spend more time away from Washington.

Also, I talked earlier about how in January we wound up linking DACA to this must-pass spending bill. There are not really between now and November, with one exception, any more must-pass bills.

A lot of what happens in Congress now is, here’s a deadline and we have to meet it or something bad happens — government shuts down, we’ve reached the debt limit, that kind of thing. We saw in December and January this debate over extending certain government surveillance authorities under FISA. If that had expired, it would have limited the government’s ability to collect intelligence information.

Those kind of issues increasingly drive what Congress does, because as the deadlines approach they think, “What else can we attach to that bill?”

I was at a conference over the weekend where somebody used the term “hitchhiker bills,” which I actually think is a good concept.

But we don’t really have that many arising deadlines between now and the election. The one big thing that Congress will have to do at some point before Oct. 1 is some sort of spending bill so that the government doesn’t shut down.

But I think the consensus is that they’ll probably do some sort of short-term spending bill just to get them at current levels to get through the election.

They could surprise me — sometimes they do — but I think that since there’s not a lot of much-pass things on the agenda, I don’t see them doing a whole lot of substance beyond nominations in the Senate.

How do you feel earmarks? Do you think they should be brought back?

Someone once asked me this question and told me I had to put the answer on a scale of 1 to 10, how much easier would earmarks make the appropriations process?

I put it at about a 3. There are certain situations in which I think they’d be helpful in terms of greasing the wheels and getting people to agree with each other to get big deals to stick.

There are certainly cases where earmarks were abused when they were around, but I never thought of them to be the terrible, pernicious things that some people did.

But at the end of the day, so much of the conflict that makes the appropriations process not work well isn’t really about the small-bore projects. It’s about big-picture questions, like overall how much money should we spend?

Plus, some individual pieces of bills have ideological conflict. One of the things we saw that was difficult to resolve in the run-up to the big spending bill that Congress passed in March was a provision related to abortion — whether certain money was going to be used to cover abortion services. That’s just one example of real ideological conflict, and earmarks aren’t going to resolve that.

So there are a lot of things that are making it hard for Congress to do its spending work on time, and I think earmarks would only help around the margins.

But I also don’t think it would be a terrible thing if they came back, in part because there continue to be other ways where members of Congress can try to direct money back to their district. They can work with federal agencies by sending letters requesting funding — sometimes we call that letter-marking instead of earmarking.

So it’s not like when earmarks went away, members of Congress lost all ability to get things they wanted for their districts.

How about term limits for members of Congress?

I am generally skeptical that congressional term limits are a good idea, in large part because I think that when you have term limits, it really makes it more difficult for members to really learn how the process works, how Washington runs and to develop the expertise they need to actually be good at their jobs.

As a result, one consequence of that is that term limits would increase even further the degree to which members rely on outside special interests for information. When you’re only going to be in Congress for let’s say six years, you have a fixed amount of time to decide how to do your work. And if you know you’re not going to be there that long, are you going to spend that time really investing and learning a lot about certain substantive areas or how the rules work, all that kind of stuff?

If you don’t have the incentive to gain that expertise, where will you turn to for it? One place would be lobbyists and special interests.

One other point on this is something we’ve seen this year, in particular. The Republicans in the House have term limits for their committee chairs, so you can only chair a committee for three terms. This year, we’ve seen a number of Republican committee chairs who are being term-limited out of their chairmanships. And instead of going back to be rank-and-file members, they’re retiring from the House.

They have expertise they’ve developed, and it’s leaving because of this dynamic.

What are some of the more misunderstood rules of Congress, and what’s the impact of those?

In the Senate, in particular, it’s really important for people to understand not just that the filibuster exists but what it actually means for the chamber.

It’s not just that you need 60 votes to end debate on most things, but it also is part of what helps give individual members of the Senate their power.

That’s why I’m skeptical we’ll see the filibuster for legislation go away anytime soon. That’s in part because if you are a senator, you know that because it’s harder to get that 60-vote coalition you may be able to hold out for things you want in that bill that you wouldn’t be able to get if you just needed to clear the 51-vote threshold.

In the House, the biggest thing that I think would be helpful for people to understand is that the majority can almost always figure out a way to make what it wants happen.

That’s a big difference between the House and the Senate. Here’s a good example: In the House rules, there’s a provision saying that big agreements at the end of the legislative process need to be made available for three days before there’s a vote on them.

But if the House majority party decides it wants to set aside that rule, they can vote on whether to set it aside on a particular case.

So in the House, you can get around almost anything as long as you have 218 votes to agree with you.