How to fix Congress: Do more work behind closed doors

Part 3 of 4: Congressional expert Sarah Binder believes lawmakers need to move power from party leaders back to committee chairs and curb leaks to the media. 

Michael Bonfigli/Special to the Christian Science Monitor
Sarah Binder in her office at George Washington University on October 14, 2014, in Washington, D.C.
Illustration by Sean Kelly

Sarah Binder believes Congress needs more talk in backrooms and less in front of television cameras.

She’d like to see more deals being cut by individual lawmakers working across the aisle in committee, rather than imposed by the leadership of the two parties, who have political motives for approving or rejecting negotiations on important pieces of legislation. 

Those are among the suggestions that Ms. Binder, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and professor of political science at The George Washington University who has studied Congress for more than 20 years, believes could help make one of the country’s most vilified institutions run better. 

In an interview in her office at Brookings, Binder, who has written three books on legislative gridlock, made these points about how a new Congress can begin to restore the trust of the American public.

How this Congress compares with past ones. 

Back in the 1950s, many of the big issues were kept off the agenda. Civil rights were filibustered, women’s rights and the environment [were] kept off the agenda. So it’s hard to make comparisons. But to the extent we can make them: In the Great Society era [1963-65], about 70 percent of major bills made it through Congress. In President Obama’s first term, when Democrats controlled the House and the Senate, only 40 percent passed. Now, with divided government, it’s only 30 percent.

A house divided is only part of the problem.  

Gridlock on average is about five percentage points higher in periods of divided control. Divided government makes things slightly more gridlocked, but not really. During the [George W.] Bush administration [2003-07], a pretty aggressive Democratic minority exploited the filibuster even in periods of unified party control.

The real reason behind the current stalemate. 

The biggest source is the rise of polarization. With a more liberal Democratic Party and a more conservative Republican Party, there are higher and higher levels of partisan team play in Congress. It reduces the incentive to accept a compromise. There’s also increased electoral competition. When was the last time we had a landslide? When the “big enchilada” [all three elected branches] is in reach, why not hold off until your party controls the White House, House, and Senate, and then legislate?

How to legislate in times of intense polarization. 

That’s where the question of secrecy comes in. There are some issues where [lawmakers] just divide up the pie: You get a third, he gets a third, I get a third. To divide up a pie, you don’t need to go behind closed doors. You just need a number. But on an issue like immigration, it’s not dividing up the pie, it’s enlarging the pie. Democrats get a path to citizenship, Republicans get more border security. Each side gets a win. You stitch a deal together. But you have to close the doors. If people leak, the dealmaking blows apart.

Leaking as an impediment to dealmaking. 

In immigration reform, if the first thing that leaks is a path to citizenship, Republican Sen. Marco Rubio [of Florida] gets pressure from his base to withdraw from the negotiations. In 2013, President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner are moving toward a grand bargain on raising the debt limit, but the moment it leaked that someone is considering “chained CPI” [changing a formula that will lower benefits for many seniors on Social Security], it’s over.

Why transparency isn’t always good. 

People think closing the door just allows politicians to pursue their own special interest and not pursue the national interest, but it’s really the other way around. You need some space where people can trust each other, but you’ve got to close the door. You can’t get to win-win deals if people are leaking part of it. 

Don’t let the public hear every word that’s being said. 

You now need a majority vote to close a committee [meeting]. Change the default, so you need a majority vote to open the committee. What really turns off people about Congress is watching the sausage being made and all the reporting of bickering. People wonder why members of Congress can’t talk like reasonable people.

Give more voice to individual lawmakers. 

Restore the committee process. The incentives for being a workhorse [as opposed to a show horse] have gone down quite a bit in a period when party leaders dominate negotiations. Any nonleadership negotiations have to have approval of the leadership in some way. One thing that made win-win deals possible in the past was that members were used to dealing with each other: They had repeated interactions; they trusted each other. In theory, that’s what the committee system produced all these years.

Let the chair rule. 

End term limits on committee chairmen [Republicans limit committee heads to three terms; Democrats have no limits]. With term limits on the chair of committees, many issues will be usurped by party leaders or won’t go anywhere. What’s your incentive to do the hard work? The incentives aren’t in place for people to invest in becoming lawmakers.

How to deal when many members think dealmaking is wrong. 

Today’s Congress will only regain its legislative capacity when leaders from both parties are willing to bring their partisans to the table to make deals and when sufficient numbers of their rank and file see it in their own electoral interest to follow them.

- In Tuesday's final installment, the head of a bipartisan think tank has some advice for the next Congress.

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