How can Congress fix itself? It should stop trying to fix itself.

Congress has tried to reform itself in the past, usually with good intentions. But few are impressed with the results. That speaks to a need to acknowledge how Congress works.

Gerry Broome/AP
Sen. Kay Hagan (D) of North Carolina is at the center of the costliest Senate race in US history. It's a sign that attempts to rein in campaign finance have failed for a variety of reasons.

One of Congress's big problems is that it is more ethical and transparent than most American businesses.

We'll wait for a moment to let that sink in fully.

Yes, Congress is the least popular institution in the United States – less popular than banks, labor unions, or even television news, according to Gallup – in part because attempts to reform it just made things worse, often in unintended ways.

That's what former congressional leaders and longtime Congress watchers told the Monitor when we asked them how to fix Congress.

But before we put Congress on a ice floe and shove it out to sea to put it out of its misery, however, consider this: These reforms didn't come for poor motives, necessarily. They simply ran afoul of how Congress actually gets things done. The result is that they have seized up the gears of Congress – or, in the slightly more humorous words of former House Speaker Dennis Hastert, locked Congress “in some isolated dodge-ball game.”

Take the transparency movement that began the 1970s. It opened floor and committee hearings for a noble goal: to open a window to the public on the bargaining on big issues that went on among members.

But what happened? The actual negotiations shifted down to the staff level, where public access is not required. The fact is, it turned out, the lawmaking process is not something suited for klieg lights and television cameras. If every word is being recorded – potentially for use in some future attack ad – then the process devolves into superficial political point-scoring rather than political dealmaking.

As a result, the markup process by which members worked out details of legislation, and which once went on for days, is now handled mainly by staff, out of range of television cameras, press, or public. Conference committees have become mostly mere formalities, if they bother to convene at all.

Here are another few examples of how an attempt to reform Congress for the better has perhaps only made things worse:

Earmarks. Congressional earmarks, or “member projects,” drove tea partyers crazy. Along with early reformers, they called member projects the “gateway drug” to big government spending addiction. Moreover, they resulted in government "pork" that was easy to cartoon, such as tea pot museums or federal studies on no-flush urinals for submarines.

The GOP-controlled House banned earmarks in 2011. Now, the thinking went, legislators would stop wasting all that time on directing funding to one’s state or district and would instead focus on reducing deficits.

How well did that work?

But the fact is, earmarks accounted for less than 1 percent of spending in annual budgets. And there's a reason they were called "pork": They greased the process so that legislators would be willing to make tough decisions. Every budget involves tough decisions. So when earmarks ended, so did much of the leverage that party leaders had in the legislative bargaining process, making it much harder to round up votes on a tough bill or avert a threatened government shutdown.

Deficit spending continues apace, and since earmarks were banned, not a single budget has been passed on time.

Live in your district. When the Republicans swept back into power in the House for the first time in 42 years after 1994 elections, leadership told members not to move their families to Washington, otherwise they will lose contact with their districts and risk being voted out in the next election. Over time, the live-at-home “reform” was also adopted by many Democrats.

The result has been a work week that begins Tuesday afternoon and ends after morning votes on Thursday. The new calendar leaves time for fund-raising in the evenings, but little time for serious committee work and even less for the social networking across the aisle that has long been an element of creative lawmaking on Capitol Hill.

Money in politics. How campaign spending reform wound up where it is now is a complex story. But just consider one outcome of the effort to rein in campaign cash: Spending on the North Carolina US Senate race is on track to top $110 million, much of it spending by outside groups not required to disclose their contributors, making it the most expensive race in US Senate history. If anything, the reform left members more committed to fundraising in a bid to keep up with the threat of surprise spending by so-called dark money groups.

The irony is that, despite all these reforms, Congress's popularity has plummeted. A new Rasmussen Reports survey finds that just eight percent of likely US voters say that Congress is doing a good or excellent job.

Gallup found that most Americans now view most members of Congress as “out of touch” (81 percent), focused on the needs of special interests (69 percent), and corrupt (54 percent), although they tend to see their own member of Congress as not quite so bad.

Sheesh, imagine if members hadn't kept homes in their districts, passed transparency laws, or tried to rein in campaign money. 

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