“What is the difference between Congress and a Boy Scout troop?”
The answer: the Boy Scout troop has adult supervision.
This was the joke going around about the Democrat-controlled United States Congress in the 1980s and nothing has improved in the last three decades. When Democrat Harry Reid was running the Senate during the Obama years, the Congress rarely had a budget — the regular process of law-making ground to a halt. Anyone who believes the Democrats have all the answers to managing Congress should investigate in more detail; it is a record of mismanagement, corruption, and abuse of the public trust.
Yet, the Republican leaders in the Senate, with their narrow two-member margin of majority, appear hapless and unable to herd “the cats” to a consensus.
A part of the difficulty passing legislation is not the fault of the leaders or political party in charge. The Congress was designed to have a chamber, the Senate, which would put the brakes on the more popularly elected House of Representatives. Everett Ladd tells the following story. George Washington answers the question of Thomas Jefferson regarding why a second legislative chamber, the Senate, was created. “Why did you pour that coffee into your saucer?” Washington asked Jefferson. “To cool it,” said Jefferson. “Even so we pour legislation into a senatorial saucer to cool it.”
Currently, the bicameral structure of the Congress and the internal Senate rules of procedure, adopted in the years after the writing of the Constitution, are the obstacles to law-making. Under the rules, a narrow majority is not sufficient for one party to pass legislation, and because of the rules, action by the Senate may slow-down or stop. Nevertheless, the Senate may be serving the function that was intended when the Constitution was written.
While the difficulty passing legislation is frustrating, both parties, on occasion, have benefited. Although President Trump complains about Senate rules blocking his legislation, the same rules slowed down President Obama’s agenda. With different Senate rules there is no telling what Obama may have attempted or achieved. Republicans upon reflection should be happy with Senate rules.
But what might be done to reform Congress? One possibility is to reduce the number of committees and subcommittees; this would minimize the members of Congress running from committee to committee, and it would likely reduce the redundancy of witnesses and testimony given before congressional committees. Multiple hurdles to pass one law increases the possibility of special interest influence and the gumming up of the entire process.
My favorite reform is to reduce the size of the House of Representatives from 435 to 335 members, and there are several reasons. First, anyone who has been involved in large group decision-making is aware of how a smaller cadre of leaders are directing the actions and votes of the many. Large group meetings of political parties, church, or unions may prove the point that the regular members do not function democratically. Robert Michels, a century ago wrote about what he called “the Iron Law of Oligarchy.” A large group, sooner or later, will be led by a smaller subgroup.
Congress is an example of what Michels was talking about, and it is somewhat ironic. Members are democratically elected, and when they go to Congress, they are told what to do by committee chairs and their leaders; Congress is not a model of democracy. It is almost impossible to be a model of democracy because of its size.
A second reason is that with fewer members the House could work more efficiently. There would be fewer members to accommodate and there would still be far more than enough to deal with the nation’s business.
A third reason to reduce the size of the House of Representatives is to save the money. The full cost of maintaining one representative appears to be about $2 million a year. If 100 representatives could be cut, this would save about $200 million a year. These days $200 million is not what it once was, yet it still is a lot of money — particularly when it seems the Congress may work better with fewer members.
Thus, the fourth reason: there is no clear justification to have a House of 435 members, and there are good reasons, such as greater efficiency, to believe the House may work better with fewer members. Why not streamline the Congress? It is not doing that well anyway.
John Havick has a Ph.D. in political science. He was a professor at Georgia Institute of Technology for many years, authored several books and a number of articles, including the widely cited "The Impact of the Internet on a Television-Based Society." His work has appeared in The New York Times, and his recent book, "The Ghosts of NASCAR: The Harlan Boys and the First Daytona 500," is available at ghostsofnascar.com. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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