What would the Founding Fathers think of America if they came back to life? Their eyes would surely bug out first at our technology and wealth. But I suspect they’d also be stunned by the deformed structure of our government. The Congress they envisioned is all but dead. The Senate in particular is supposed to be the place where Americans hammer out our biggest challenges with debate. That hasn’t happened for decades—and the rot is bipartisan.
Many on the left think the problem is the filibuster, which requires a supermajority to end debate and enact most legislation. But ending the filibuster would allow political parties to change the direction of the country dramatically with a succession of shifting 51-49 votes. That’s a path to even more polarization and instability. The Senate’s culture needs dramatic change aimed at promoting debate, not ending it. Here are some ideas:
• Cut the cameras. Most of what happens in committee hearings isn’t oversight, it’s showmanship. Senators make speeches that get chopped up, shipped to home-state TV stations, and blasted across social media. They aren’t trying to learn from witnesses, uncover details, or improve legislation. They’re competing for sound bites.
There’s one notable exception: The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, the majority of whose work is done in secret. Without posturing for cameras, Republicans and Democrats cooperate on some of America’s most complicated and urgent problems. Other committees could follow their example, while keeping transparency by making transcripts and real-time audio available to the public.
• Abolish standing committees. The Senate is supposed to be the world’s greatest deliberative body, but it operates on about 20 permanent fiefdoms. Dividing legislative work is important, but there’s no corporation that would tackle its problems by creating 20 permanent committees and running every decision through them. The Senate should instead create temporary two-year committees, each devoted to making real progress on one or two big problems. Committees should draw power from their accomplishments, not based on which industries need to supplicate before the gavel.
• Pack the floor. Serious debate happens only if senators show up. Ninety-nine percent of the time you see a senator talking on the floor, he’s speaking to a chamber with somewhere between zero and two colleagues present. The Senate’s rules privilege the majority, which controls the agenda and floor time. Senators ought to be packed on the floor having real debates. We can do that by changing the rules to allow committees to control some floor time. Elections have consequences, so the majority leader should control the majority of the Senate’s time, but committees should be able to command specific times for specific debates.
• Live together. A lot of time is spent demonizing the opposition, but most senators can get along quite well. Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii is as liberal as the day is long, but he’s my friend. Senators should live, eat, and meet in dormitories when the Senate is in session. It’s hard to demonize people you spend time with every day.
• Cancel re-election. One of the biggest reasons Congress gives away its power to the executive branch is that it’s politically expedient for both parties to avoid the decisions that come from the work of legislating. Lawmakers are obsessed with staying in office, and one of the easiest ways to keep getting re-elected is by avoiding hard decisions. We ought to propose a constitutional amendment to limit every senator to one term, but we should double it from six years to 12. Senators who don’t have to worry about short-term popularity can work instead on long-term challenges.
If that’s a bridge too far, at least ban fundraising while the Senate is in session in Washington. It’s an everyday experience to sit down at a $2,000-a-plate lunch fundraiser and then run over to make committee votes. Lobbying is protected by the First Amendment, but it shouldn’t be the primary focus of senators when we’ve got work to do.
• Repeal the 17th Amendment. Ratified in 1912, it replaced the appointment of senators by state legislatures with direct election. Different states bring different solutions to the table, and that ought to be reflected in the Senate’s national debate. The old saying used to be that all politics is local, but today—thanks to the internet, 24/7 cable news and a cottage industry dedicated to political addiction—politics is polarized and national. That would change if state legislatures had direct control over who serves in the Senate.
• Sunset everything. For decades Pennsylvania Avenue has been a one-way street, as authority flowed from Congress to the executive branch. When the unelected bureaucracy gets power, it doesn’t let go. We ought to end that by having the Senate create a “super committee” dedicated to reviewing all such delegations of power over the past 80 years and then proposing legislation to sunset the authority of entire bureaucracies on a rolling basis. Does, say, the Health and Human Services Department ever answer for its aggressive regulatory lawmaking? Of course not. Sunset all its authority in 12 months and watch lawmakers start to make actual laws.
• Make a real budget. The power of the purse is Congress’s primary lever—and the area where Congress is most unserious. The budget process is completely broken, and every couple of months lawmakers are faced with a monumentally stupid decision: Shut the government down or spend 102% of what was spent last year, with no oversight. It’s an endless series of all-or-nothing brinkmanship fights—continuing resolutions, omnibus spending deals and debt-ceiling hikes. We ought to fix that with two-year budgeting that includes all federal spending, including on entitlements. We ought to end the distinction between appropriation and authorization. Legislation that authorizes federal action should also appropriate the money to pay for it.
These aren’t partisan proposals, because congressional dysfunction isn’t a partisan problem. Lawmakers—Republicans and Democrats—don’t make laws. Over years, Congress made the choice to shirk its duty and cede power to the executive branch. Recovery will be hard, but it’s time for Congress build some muscle and figure out how to serve the American people by doing our constitutionally mandated jobs again.
Mr. Sasse, a Republican, is a U.S. senator from Nebraska.
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