Fixing a broken Congress takes three steps

By Zac Bears

Congress is broken. Polling by RealClearPolitics, which averages polls like Gallup, CNN and Fox, puts Congressional approval at just 8.9 percent. Congress has not been so disliked by its electorate since the early 1990s. Since 2007, Congress has been mired under 20 percent approval (with the exception of a short time in 2009). Most of the disdain revolves around the inability of Congress to pass bills into law. Due to Republican obstructionism in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, the 112th Congress was the least productive Congress since 1980. It was less productive than the “do-nothing” 80th Congress, against which Harry Truman campaigned.


Congressional scholars Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein said, “We have been studying Washington politics and Congress for more than 40 years, and never have we seen them this dysfunctional.” Ornstein, a fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, says that Republican obstructionism is detrimental. When conservative think tanks are no longer confident in the conservative wing of the conservative party, something is wrong with Congress.

The 113th Congress is unlikely to reverse this trend. Since taking office in January, the House has failed to pass the farm bill reauthorization, the Senate’s immigration reform plan and the bill expanding employee discrimination protection to sexual orientation and gender identity. The United States needs a Congress that works.

Senators and representatives must stop using the rules of Congress to hold the country hostage to their interests. The Republican House majorities in the 112th and 113th Congress constantly rebuke compromise and moderation. Tea Party members, many elected in the 2010 midterm elections, faced a staunch electorate that demanded ideological purity and forced many moderate Republicans into primary challenges, which they subsequently lost to the more conservative candidate. This polarized the debate between Republicans and Democrats.

While the economy continued to flounder, Congress chose to focus on deficit reduction in 2011 instead of passing a jobs bill or stimulus package to bring the economy back to full employment. In 2011, Republicans refused to raise the debt ceiling for three months, and voted to do so only hours before the United States would have defaulted on debt for the first time in history. This happened again in Oct. 2013.

Instead of bolstering confidence in the economy, the lack of progress toward raising the debt ceiling actually reduced gross domestic product and job growth. During the George W. Bush presidency, Congress raised the debt ceiling five times when Democrats controlled Congress. The 2011 debt ceiling debacle demolished job growth. In the three months leading up to the debt ceiling dilemma, the economy created over 200,000 jobs per month. From May to August, the U.S. economy created under 100,000 jobs per month. In September, after the debate had passed, the economy created over 200,000 jobs.

Congressional Republicans need to moderate their positions and ditch ideological purity. Democrats are willing to compromise on taxes, spending and earned benefits like Social Security, and Republicans must be willing to do the same.

Beyond crossing the aisle to reach compromise on the House floor, independent commissions, not partisan legislatures must perform Congressional redistricting—the process of defining new congressional districts after each decennial U.S. Census.

Districts like the Illinois Fourth and the newly drawn Maryland Third slice across counties, cities and even neighborhoods to acquire the most favorable votes. The Maryland Third stretches from Baltimore down to Washington D.C. suburbs in the south. Democrats drew an unusual district to oust long-time Republican congressman Roscoe Bartlett from his seat, and they were successful.

The Illinois Fourth from 2002 to 2010 consisted of both Hispanic areas of Chicago, even though they are in opposite parts of the city. To connect them, the district runs along Interstate 294. A 2002 Economist article refers to the Illinois Fourth as lying on “either side of a black part of the city like the bread of a sandwich.”

In the 2012 election, redistricting played a key role in maintaining Republican control of the House. Republicans, due to their extensive redistricting in 2010, had an advantage in 241 congressional districts, 23 more than is necessary for a majority.

In many places, however, Democrats outpolled Republicans in terms of total votes cast for House seats. For example, in Pennsylvania, President Obama won 52 percent of votes and Democratic senator Bob Casey won 53 percent of votes, but Democrats only won five of the state’s 18 House races. Republicans in control of state government redistricted historically Democratic strongholds into five districts, and in every race that Democrats won, they won more than 60 percent of the vote.

There is a simple solution to partisan redistricting: take the parties out of the process. Non-partisan, independent commissions present a reasonable solution to a distortion in American democracy.

Reforms must be made to the Senate’s filibuster. The traditional filibuster involves a senator or group of senators continuing debate on an issue by refusing to stop speaking. This has been usurped by the parliamentary rule, which allows any senator to stop progress on a law unless 60 percent of senators vote to end debate. Republicans used it a combined 363 times from Jan. 2007 to Jan. 2013, while Democrats used it a combined 201 times from 2001 to 2007. One suggested reform is to bring back the speaking requirement for filibusters. Crafted by Sens. Tom Udall and Jeff Merkley, the new rules would allow a filibuster to continue as long as the objecting senator remained on the floor and speaking to continue debate.

Members of Congress and senators must bury the hatchet of polarization and ideological purity, and this cannot be done by laws or rules, but by the representatives themselves. In order to remove partisanship from the process, independent commissions must perform Congressional redistricting. The Senate requires filibuster reform to bring back majority rule. Through these reforms, Congress will be both fairer and faster. The United States needs a responsive legislature that is beholden to the American people and not party organizations or ideologies, and that can only occur through significant reform.

Zac Bears is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected].