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Is 2022 the death knell for congressional reform?

Those of us who have been working to goad Congress to reform itself got some bad news recently. Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.) lost in his primary, thanks to Illinois’ Democrats redistricting him.

Davis is the ranking member of the Committee on House Administration (CHA) and also served on the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress (SCMC). In short, he is a person who has had a key role in the various efforts to upgrade Congress to meet the demands of the 21st century. But come January 2023, Davis will no longer be there.

Who will take his place is unclear. Davis was one of only three GOP members on the nine-member CHA. Presumably, Republicans will have the majority and more seats, but it remains to be seen whether any of them will be institutionalists willing to lean into the hard work of improving the House’s dated structures, processes and technology for serving the people.

The loss of Davis comes atop two additional pieces of bad news.

First, the select committee is due to expire at the end of this year. For the past three years, it has been grinding out bipartisan proposals and partnering with the CHA to get them enacted. To date, the SCMC has passed 142 recommendations, 33 of which have been fully implemented and 24 of which are nearly completed. Admirably, many of these reforms aim to reduce the gratuitous hyperpartisanship among members and to further professionalize staffing. Nonetheless, there are no signs the House leadership will call a vote to extend the life of the SCMC.

Second, Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) is leaving the House. He is running for the seat of Sen. Rob Portman, who is retiring. Ryan has chaired the chamber’s subcommittee on legislative branch appropriations (SLBA) for years. He understands the value of congressional reform and has used the subcommittee’s power of the purse and authority to issue directives in reports to nudge reforms. Indeed, it was during Ryan’s time with the committee that struck down the silly, anachronistic rule that supposedly forbade the Congressional Research Service (CRS) from sharing its reports publicly. Again, whether someone who cares about congressional reform will replace Ryan remains to be seen. Certainly, the odds look long as the GOP has a bad habit of thinking that starving the legislative branch pleases the public.

All three of these venues — CHA, SCMC, and SLBA — were key to the congressional reform effort. The SCMC created ideas for reform, the CHA used its jurisdictional authority to enact them and House legislative branch appropriators helped supply funds that were needed. Six months from now, all three of these engines of reform might be idle.

Which would be a real shame. Congress desperately needs to upgrade its capacity and operations. Too much work that should get done does not get done.

The chambers have not overhauled themselves since the early 1970s. Back then, legislators on both sides of the aisle felt that presidents had too often usurped legislative powers and that the only way for the first branch of government to restore its power was to go big. So they enacted a congressional budget act, bulked up the corps of experts working in the legislative branch support agencies (CRS, the Government Accountability Office, etc.) and changed various internal rules and structures.

But those were the days when legislators took real pride in being legislators. There were more elected officials who understood that they had an interest in guarding Congress’ powers, and in having the national legislature be the strongest branch of government.

This is why the news of the departure of Davis and Ryan and the demise of the select committee is so dispiriting. These were the rare birds who cared enough about the Constitution and the health of representative government to work across the aisle.

Certainly, legislators can demand that the next Speaker of the House reestablish the select committee or some variation thereof. They also can fight to see that reformers are named to the CHA and SLBA. Their leverage for achieving these objectives is to withhold their votes in the selection of the Speaker. This is the way former Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.) got the SCMC created.

But will there be sufficient legislators with the desire and courage to make those demands? Let us all hope so. Because if nobody is tasked with reforming Congress then the job will not get done. 

Kevin R. Kosar (@kevinrkosar) is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He is the coeditor of “Congress Overwhelmed: Congressional Capacity and Prospects for Reform (University of Chicago Press, 2020).

Tags Congress congressional reform Dan Lipinski Politics of the United States Rob Portman Rodney Davis Tim Ryan United States House Committee on House Administration

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