House Democrats Want to Reorganize Congress. They Shouldn’t Stop Halfway.

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi talks to reporters during a news conference at the Capitol. 

When the House approved a package of rules changes at the beginning of this year aimed at making Congress work better, not many people took notice. 

It’s easy to see why. House Democrats unveiled their new rules alongside a sweeping democracy reform bill that would overhaul the political money, ethics lobbying and voting rules. Inevitably, Democrats’ “For the People Act” overshadowed their new procedural rules, as did the government shutdown that dragged on for 35 days.

But Democrats’ efforts to improve Congress as an institution, making the House more efficient, productive, transparent, and accountable, could prove as important in their own way as their more ambitious anti-corruption package. These House rules changes look more timely than ever in the wake of the recent shutdown, which has left lawmakers eager to find some way—any way—to escape their predictable and never-ending cycle of budget brinkmanship.

One measure tucked into the new House rules package would automatically raise the debt limit when Congress adopts a budget resolution. That would put an end to the predictable game of chicken that now invariably arises when Congress votes on whether to raise the debt ceiling, threatening to send the U.S. over a “fiscal cliff” into default and potential economic meltdown. Our next fiscal cliff showdown could be just around the corner, when the currently suspended debt limit is reinstated on March 1.

The new House rules also establish a bipartisan Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, to be headed by Democrat Derek Kilmer, of Washington state. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced five additional Democrats to serve on that committee this week, and Republicans will choose six GOP members. The panel will look for ways to modernize congressional staffing, procedures, scheduling and calendar, and will issue a report by the end of the year.

Budget reforms are not explicitly part of the modernization panel’s mandate, but they ought to be. Kilmer is a strong advocate of fixing the broken budget process, and Congress’s inability to perform the most basic function of government, namely passing a budget on time, is a leading symptom of its dysfunction. One source of budget chaos and confusion is the mixed-up congressional committee structure, which features jumbled and overlapping jurisdictions and is long overdue for an overhaul.

The last time Congress had a major reorganization was in the mid-1990s, under then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who arguably weakened Congress by decimating much of its support staff. Advocates of institutional reform, both on and off Capitol Hill, argue that it’s time to return to regular order, put committees back in charge of legislation, and realign committee jurisdictions so they better match up with federal agencies. Aligning mismatched House and Senate committees is also a key ingredient of budget reform.

Committee chairs won’t give up their turf without a fight, of course. But the special House panel should take advantage of reorganization to help stop the merry-go-round of congressional dysfunction and breakdown. In the wake of the longest government shutdown in history, and on the eve of the next fiscal cliff debate, the most important procedural change Congress can make may be to fix its broken budget process.

At the least, the House should take up some version of the “stop shutdown” legislation introduced in the Senate by Republican Rob Portman, of Ohio, and Democrat Mark Warner, of Virginia, which would automatically fund the government even if Congress missed its budget deadlines. The bills are not perfect, and the two parties’ versions must be reconciled, but both sides have signaled willingness to bend.

But what’s really needed is a top-to-bottom budget overhaul. For years, lawmakers have debated the full gamut of fixes. These range from biennial (instead of annual) budgeting, aligning the fiscal year with the calendar year, better aligning the House and Senate committees with one another and with the federal agencies, and automatically raising the debt limit when Congress adopts a budget resolution—as the House has agreed to do already.

It won’t be easy. Congress last year tasked a special bipartisan, bicameral committee with tackling budget reforms, and the panel failed to make a single recommendation. 

The Joint Select Committee on Budget and Appropriations, formed as part of a deal to raise discretionary spending caps last February, met for eight months and zeroed in on a single point of agreement—to move to biennial budgeting. But even that narrow recommendation fell apart amid procedural disputes.

But if anything, that makes the House’s move toward procedural reform look all the more remarkable. Consider this: The House rules changes ushered through at the beginning of this Congress won approval by a surprising 418-12 margin. If anyone’s sick of the brinkmanship and dysfunction on Capitol Hill, it’s lawmakers themselves. House Democrats have gotten the ball rolling. Let’s hope it doesn’t take another shutdown or government default to persuade the rest of Congress to follow through.

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