Washington is broken. Everyone agrees. So why does no one have a plan to fix it?
Rep. Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin has served in Congress for two years, and those two years have given him time to think about how to save the institution. He took to the pages of The Atlantic to explain just how broken Congress is – and how we might yet save it.
If you are among the 11 percent of Americans who believe that everything in Congress is going swimmingly, then save some time and stop reading right now. (But first, please share whatever experimental drugs you are on.) But if you are among the 87 percent of people who are concerned about what is going on in Congress, then I have an important message for you: It’s much worse than you think.
On Tuesday, Congress reconvenes after a month of campaigning. Lame-duck legislation will likely get the most attention, but a more important debate will occur among surviving incumbents and new members in each caucus about how to organize for the next Congress. This debate about rules and process, more than any Russia-related investigation or wall-funding-fueled shutdown, will determine whether Congress can avoid two years of dysfunction or whether it will continue its slide into irrelevance.
I am a freshman representative from northeastern Wisconsin. When I ran in 2016, I assumed the problem with Congress was the people. I thought most members were either hopelessly unqualified or ruthlessly ambitious. Or probably both. And to be sure, Congress has always had its dunces and its Machiavellis. However, most of the representatives I have gotten to know on both sides of the aisle are smart, patriotic, and hardworking.
I have come to believe that the problem is not the people. The problem is a defective process and a power structure that, whichever party is in charge, funnels all power to leadership and stifles debate and initiative within the ranks. Your average member of Congress, far from being drunk on power, actually has very little of it outside a cable-news studio.
Unfortunately, a structural problem is harder to fix than a people problem. In the House of Representatives, we have an opportunity to get rid of bad people every two years via elections. Reforming the legislative process and realigning incentives is more difficult. The reality is that Congress cannot get anything done because it is not equipped to get anything done. It is no longer a tool suited to its original purpose of making laws and providing oversight. It has instead become a theater used by both parties to stoke the outrage of their base. We must reform the processes and power structures of Congress, or we will further tear our country apart.
There is a catch, though. Not only is talking about congressional reform as a member of Congress likely to make all my colleagues mad; it’s also boring. No one wants to have me on Fox News or MSNBC to discuss the finer points of appropriations versus authorization committees (caravans and Kavanaugh make for better theater). But it’s precisely because congressional processes are boring, byzantine, and bloodless that they can be exploited.
How did an institution that was once admired around the world become so toothless? This sounds almost quaint now, but the Framers were gravely concerned about the risk of legislative predominance. They would be puzzled to see how Congress has squandered its power of the purse by putting most federal spending on autopilot (more than 70 percent today and growing). They would also be shocked to see Congress systematically surrender its constitutional authority on national-security issues to the executive branch. Since the passage—over Richard Nixon’s veto—of the 1973 War Powers Resolution, which was (ironically) intended to rein in the war powers of the president, presidents of both parties have submitted 168 reports to Congress as required under the WPR, but only one president has triggered the requirement for the withdrawal of forces after 60 days without congressional authorization. Both Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump argued that the Authorization for the Use of Military Force, which was passed by Congress one week after 9/11 and never reconsidered since, along with the authority inherent in Article II of the Constitution, gave them the necessary power to kill people around the world who were not born before 9/11 or who belong to groups other than al-Qaeda, without any further act of Congress. Thus, on matters foreign and domestic, the legislative leviathan envisioned by the Framers sits on the sidelines screaming rather than getting in the game.